Gaziantep, Turkey– The crowd of mothers gathered early, parking their strollers in a neat row against the side of a newly painted building. Amal Nabil, a 32-year-old Syrian refugee, had travelled for more than an hour to get here, first by bus then on foot. In the entrance hallway lined with wooden benches, she held her 1-year-old daughter in her arms as her 3-year-old shed her coat and joined a group of children playing with balloons.
“My neighbourhood health centre told me I had to come here to get my baby vaccinated,” she said. “Today is the first day they are doing the vaccines and I wanted to get here before it got too busy.”
So began in 15 February 2017, across Turkey, the first round of an accelerated country-wide vaccina
tion campaign that ended on March 3, 2017. It was followed in May 2017 by a second 13-day campaign, part of an effort to make sure that no child was left immunized. The Ministry of Health (MoH), with a country-wide team of 5,000 people, supported by UNICEF and WHO, completed the missing vaccine doses of more than 120,000 refugee and migrant children under the age of five. Of these 95% of them live in 20 of Turkey’s 81 provinces.
An estimated three million Syrian refugees live in Turkey. Exposure to infectious diseases is a major risk faced by young children in large migration movements. The vaccines – Pentavalent, MMR and Hepatitis-B – are provided by the Turkish government free of charge. Pentavalent vaccine protects against Diphtheria, Pertussis, Tetanus, Polio and Haemophilus influenza type b related diseases. In addition to vaccinations, all new vaccination records were transferred into Turkey’s health information system.
Vaccination information was disseminated at all levels from the ministry and provincial directorates to mosques, local health centres as well as via radio broadcasts. In Gaziantep, outreach teams with a vaccine cold box went door to door in neighbourhoods known to house Syrians, knocking on doors, asking to see vaccination cards and then vaccinating on the spot.
The language barrier between Arabic-speaking refugees and Turkish doctors has been a major challenge and Syrian doctors and nurses are now being trained and certified to work in these health centres.
The salmon and ivory coloured building where Amal brought her daughters pened in January 2017, it still wears that antiseptic smell of newness. There were balloons for the children and hygiene kits for the parents. Amal fled Aleppo two and a half years ago. Tall and elegantly poised, she talked of a past life as a teacher and law student married to a successful businessman. Now she struggles to survive in a studio apartment as her husband moves from job to job. Her youngest, Sema, was born in Turkey. Her 3-year-old, Rima, has no memories of Syria. Amal cooed and whispered to Sema as a nurse, Mahmoud Alaboaish, a 37-year-old Syrian refugee, gave the little girl the first of two shots in her upper thigh. Sema responded with high-pitched screams and sobs. Before Amal left the room, Mahmoud explained to her the possible side effects of the vaccinations and outlined the timings for the next shots.
Amal listened attentively leaning in on the desk to show her refugee registration and her children’s vaccination records. Sema snuggled close, her cheeks still wet with tears.
Partnership for Children
UNICEF supports the Government of Turkey in its country-wide immunization campaigns with generous funding from the State of Kuwait.