6 years into the conflict, hero vaccinators in northern Syria brave danger to protect children from disease

SIG

The Syria Immunization Group (SIG) bring vaccines to children in hard-to-reach and besieged areas.

This month marks a tragic milestone: 6 years since the conflict began in the Syrian Arab Republic. This ongoing crisis has led to 5 million refugees, more than 6 million internally displaced people and 13.5 million people in need within the country.

A number of WHO partners in the north of the country collectively form what is known as the Syria Immunization Group (SIG), an immunization cluster coordinated by WHO staff in the field office in Gaziantep, Turkey. The work of this group is carried out under what is known as the “whole-of-Syria” approach, which brings together humanitarian actors both within the country and from neighbouring countries to provide access to health services across lines and borders.

The SIG is made up of individuals who often put their own lives at risk to bring vaccines to children in hard-to-reach and besieged areas. These courageous health workers take boats when bridges are destroyed. They walk through farmland carrying coolers of vaccines. They provide vaccinations to communities while bombs fall nearby. They brave tremendous danger to protect children from deadly diseases.

The following stories represent just a few of the many hero vaccinators working in partnership with WHO to keep children in northern Syria safe from vaccine-preventable diseases.

Hope floats: bringing vaccines by boat

A village situated on a lake called Al-Asad in northern Syria had been inaccessible to the SIG’s vaccination teams. The village was home to 8200 people, with hundreds of children under the age of 5 years. But the large number of armed groups in the region meant that it was besieged from all sides, with snipers posing a particularly grave threat. In light of these challenges and dangers, the village could only be accessed by boat.

In March 2016 a measles vaccination team from the SIG decided to attempt to reach the village, despite the danger. The health workers boarded a small boat, carrying with them their immunization equipment. It took a considerable amount of time to travel to the village beach, but once they arrived they were greeted with great hospitality. The village leader, who had lost his 4-year-old son to shelling, hosted the vaccination team for five days and helped them carry out their work. In all, they vaccinated all 622 children under the age of 5 against measles before continuing to another village.

A narrow escape

An SIG vaccination team was deployed to one of the camps for internally displaced people near the city of Harem, close to the Syrian–Turkish border. The camp’s residents had lost everything and were focused on meeting their most basic needs. As such, vaccination was not initially seen as a top priority.

The immunization team made an extra effort to engage in dialogue with people in the camp about the importance of vaccination, and soon parents began arriving at the site and requesting vaccination for their children. At one point, the health workers left the camp to inspect the work taking place at a nearby health centre. On their way, they heard explosions nearby. Minutes after they reached the health centre cars began to arrive, carrying wounded people in need of aid. Warplanes had bombed the camp the vaccination team had just left. The team members were unhurt but were deeply shaken by this narrow escape.

Tragedy strikes a dedicated team member

An SIG team member named Khaled worked in Hama province, encouraging communities to vaccinate their children. He would meet with village leaders and speak to them about the immunization campaigns, and would speak to the sheikhs of the mosques and worshippers, encouraging them to have their children vaccinated. Khaled would also drive through villages in a car with a loudspeaker, announcing the vaccination team’s arrival. His efforts encouraged many people to get their children immunized by the SIG teams.

In one instance, Khaled’s hard work resulted in the village leader receiving the mobile vaccination team at his own home; during that visit, every single child in the village was successfully vaccinated. Khaled returned to his family that night, tired but happy. He went to bed early, exhausted after a long day. The next day, however, Khaled did not come to work. During the night, his home had been hit by aircraft missiles and destroyed. He and his family were killed.

Protecting children against polio

In February 2017 the SIG conducted a polio immunization campaign in northern Syria, focused on the provinces of Idleb, Hama, Aleppo and Homs. Before carrying out this large-scale campaign, a total of 2730 people were trained (2305 men and 425 women). The team of vaccinators comprised 1754 people, and campaign activities used 438 vehicles to reach 616 937 children with bivalent oral polio vaccine.

In early March during an awards ceremony in Gaziantep, Turkey, WHO honoured its immunization partners for their extraordinary efforts in vaccinating children in northern Syria.

WHO’s work in southern Turkey and northern Syria

In October 2013 WHO established a field office in Gaziantep, in southern Turkey, and has since scaled up its capacity and activities. It acts as the health cluster lead for partners working in the northern part of the Syrian Arab Republic. In this role, WHO facilitates a variety of life-saving interventions for the critically vulnerable population in northern Syria. This includes coordinating immunization activities for millions of Syrian children who have missed out on crucial vaccinations due to the conflict. WHO and its partners also continue to respond to disease outbreaks, such as a January 2017 measles outbreak in a camp for displaced people.

Of the US$ 11 million needed to continue its vital immunization work in 2017, WHO had received US$ 4.2 million as of early March 2017.