UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow wrapped up her visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo yesterday with an urgent plea for better vaccination campaigns and protection for children to stamp out polio and save and improve the lives of especially the most vulnerable children, whose communities continue to be ravaged by poverty and conflict.
For hundreds and thousands of families in the DRC, every day is a struggle to survive. Insufficient vaccination coverage due to vast distances and refusal of parents, frail health care and educational systems, lack of clean water, sanitation and proper nutrition – compounded with years of conflict and violence – are some of the reasons why children die at a higher rate than almost anywhere else in the world. As long as polio persists in the DRC it affects the most vulnerable here and puts at risk children all over the world.
This situation is of deep concern to UNICEF and its partners, even more so at a time where the polio eradication campaign has made great strides globally. “India has demonstrated that we can win the fight against polio and protect all children from the suffering of this potentially deadly and paralyzing disease,” said Farrow, who herself had polio as a child, and whose son, adopted from India, is paralyzed from the waist down because of the disease.
After being polio-free for several years, DRC reported new polio cases in 2006. After a peak of 100 cases in 2010, 93 cases were registered in 2011. Despite the prevailing insecurity in some parts, vaccination campaigns have been covered the entire country. Two national and four sub-national campaigns are planned for 2012. The next one starts on 27 February with the aim to vaccinate more than 4.5 million people in six provinces.
In the DRC, violence, displacement, and lack of social services are part of a vicious cycle that is killing children. Insecurity puts many children beyond the reach of vaccination teams and many others have limited access to education, food and basic services, while being at risk from conflict. Around 1.7 million adults and children have been displaced by conflict in recent years, with nearly half a million refugees seeking shelter in other countries. Many of them have lost everything. “Children affected by armed conflict are the most vulnerable in DRC. They lack access to clean water, adequate sanitation and nutrition, education and health care.” stressed Barbara Bentein, UNICEF Representative in DRC. “Still, they have the same right to social services as children anywhere in the world.”
Although significant progress has been made over the past few years for children t much more remains to be done. According to DRC’s 2010 Multi Indicator Cluster Survey [MICS], one in seven children in DRC dies before reaching the age of five [158 out of 1.000 life-births]. Almost half of all children under five suffer from stunted growth as a direct result of nutrient deficiency. Less than half the population has access to safe drinking water. Two of three children have no birth certificate.
Another consequence of the ongoing conflict is the recruitment of children into armed groups across eastern DRC. While some are abducted, others join because of poverty and a lack of other options. Progress in releasing and reintegrating boys and girls who have been associated with armed forces is continuing. In 2011 nearly 5,000 children were reintegrated into their communities. Yet many remain in the ranks and those who have been demobilized are at risk of re-enrollment.
“Conflict robs children of their childhood. To build a bright future for DRC we must ensure that the adults of tomorrow can develop their full potential today.” said Farrow.