Subject: AFP: Massive children's immunization drive set to take off in Dili

Massive children's immunization drive set to take off in Dili

DILI, East Timor, Oct 15 (AFP) - A massive immunization campaign will get under way next week to head off a potentially deadly measles epidemic among children in the East Timorese capital as the annual wet season looms.

The United Nations childrens' fund (UNICEF) will spearhead the push, starting Tuesday, assisted by Doctors Without Borders and the World Health Organization (WHO) as the first step towards rebuilding the territory's shattered health care system.

More than 165,000 children aged under five years, whose immune systems have been weakened by poor nutrition and exposure to the elements, will be targetted, UNICEF said.

They will also be given Vitamin A supplements.

In Dili alone, 90 percent of the buildings have been destroyed and many people are living in the open giving them little defence against prolonged heavy rains.

Earlier this week, the WHO warned the territory was at risk not just from a measles epidemic but also cholera and malaria. It said the rains could submerge the devastated public health system under a catastrophic wave of disease.

Thousands of refugees have thronged back to the capital, but many more are believed to be still hiding in the hills in fear of militia violence after the territory voted for independence from Indonesia in August.

The infrastructure of Dili and other towns is in ruins, and doctors say the outlook could be grim.

Doctor Kevin Baker, with the small non-government organization Timor Aid, said the innoculation program was welcome, but pointed out it was not just Dili that needed immediate help.

"The wet season has already started and we're kidding ourselves if we think it will be alright," he said.

"The situation has always been borderline and the wet season will make it harder to get rudimentary things into the mountains where the immune systems of children are equally low."

The first downpour of the season drenched Dili overnight Wednesday and more dark clouds were gathering over the capital Friday.

WHO doctor Buriot Diego said aid agencies were racing against the clock to install a basic emergency health care system.

"There is a risk of cholera because the sanitary situation is really bad, a risk of dengue fever as we are in an endemic areaa, and also a risk of Japanese encephilitis.

UNICEF health officer in Dili Samhari Baswedan said once the capital was covered, "we can concentrate on supporting the further expansion of immunization and health services to all other parts of the country.

"Once we have coverage over the entire country, we will need to strongly focus on improving the quality of the health care delivered."

He said reconstructing public health facilties would take up to 12 months, but by then mobile health clinics and a health information and manageemnt system should be in place.

Aid agencies would also work on an expanded program for immunization for other childhood diseases such as polio, diptheria and tuberculosis.

The emphasis will then progressively shift to building a health education system for doctors and midwives and setting up a center for the control of communicable diseases, UNICEF said.

At least seven cases of measles have already been found in Dili.

Five vaccination centers will be set up atound the town, including the damaged compound of the Bidau primary school and the cathedral.

The International Force for East Timor (Interfet) peacekeepers will tour the town broadcasting news of the program over a loud speaker system.

The pro-independence National Committee for Timorese Resistance will use the opportunity to register children.

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