Ethiopia is now facing one of the worst droughts in decades, and rising rates of malnutrition are leaving children vulnerable to infectious diseases, including measles. To prevent an outbreak in the drought-affected regions, UNICEF and partners are helping the government vaccinate some 25 million children nationwide.
The little girls and boys line up at the Mereb Mieti Health Centre, rolling up their sleeves and baring their arms in turn as the nurse deftly administers the measles vaccine.
Some flinch, a few even criy or bury their heads in their mothers dresses, but afterwards they all play near the front of the health centre, comparing the tiny marks the needles had left in their skin.
It is day four of the measles vaccination campaign in Enderta Woreda (district) in Tigray, one of the areas most affected by Ethiopia’s drought. Many children in the community were not previously vaccinated against measles, and there are fears of an outbreak. The risk is particularly high among children whose immunity has been weakened due to malnutrition, which has been rising because of the drought.
Mobilizing for vaccination
Alemnesh Teka’s is part of the Women’s Health Development Army, a group of volunteers enlisted to work at the household level to promote community health. She is responsible for 30 households and her role is to make sure that all of the children between the ages of 6 months and 15 years come to get vaccinated.
“Everyone knows that before, children used to die from measles and many went blind and had skin rashes,” she says outside the health centre, as the children crowd around her. “So when they say it’s time for the measles vaccine, people know it’s important to come.”
Alemnesh knows first hand about the dangers of measles and remembers when she was younger how prevalent it could be.
“In my village where I lived, the measles came and six children died,” she says. “My sister died.”
School-aged children will be immunized at campaigns conducted at schools, but many of the children milling around the health centre amid the dry, drought-stricken hills of this kebele (sub-district) are too young for school.
Aggravated by drought
Measles is a highly infectious disease that spreads through water droplets the air and can lead to severe complications, including pneumonia, diarrhoea and brain infections.
The threat of a measles outbreak is greater during droughts like the one affecting Ethiopia because malnutrition lowers the body’s defences, making children more vulnerable to the disease and its complications.
UNICEF and partners, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the Measles and Rubella Initiative and USAID, have supported the Ethiopian Ministry of Health’s campaign to vaccinate some 25 million children aged 6 months to 15 years in drought-affected areas nationwide.
Sitting outside Adi Gudom Primary Hospital in Hintalo Wejerat Woreda, Saba Mehari, 22, nurses her fretful 9-month-old Samuel right after he received the vaccine. She too remembers how many in her village contracted the disease, including her older sister when Saba was just 7 years old.
“She was the first born, and after that my family started immunizing everyone,” she says, explaining how she heard about the current campaign from a member of the Women’s Health Development Army.
Others describe how they saw public service announcements on television or heard about it from their children who were informed at school.
Mahra Abderrahman, 50, who is at the health centre with her daughter and twin grandsons, remembers measles as being a big part of their lives when she was younger.
The village struggled to cope with illness by giving special foods to those who were sick, and segregating the affected families. The slight woman with a brilliant smile admits that she herself was infected, and for a time was covered in scars and suffered from an eye infection.
“Now measles is not a problem because the Government is vaccinating the children for free,” she says.
As part of the health reponse for drought-affected populations, UNICEF provides financial support, supplies including medicines, and technical assistance to partners for the prevention of major causes of child illnesses and deaths. In Ethiopia, these illnesses can range from acute watery diarrhoea and other diarrhoeal diseases, to vaccine preventable diseases, as well as other diseases such as scabies and meningitis. UNICEF also supports Mobile Health and Nutrition Teams in pastoralist regions of the country.