Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese children could miss life-saving vaccines: Unicef

Parents unable to afford transport to healthcare centres amid country's crises

Syrian children play outside their tents at a refugee camp in the city of Arsal in Lebanon's Bekaa valley. Many families in Lebanon can no longer afford to travel to health facilities for basic immunisation services, Unicef said. AFP

Children in Lebanon are unable to receive essential, potentially life-saving vaccinations because parents cannot afford the transport to healthcare facilities amid the economic collapse and other crises in the country, Unicef has warned.

And the situation looks set to worsen, with 80 per cent of the country in poverty and high inflation — meaning parents have “to make further painful decisions”.

In a new report, Unicef said falling vaccination rates have left “hundreds of thousands” of young people at risk of preventable but deadly diseases, including diphtheria, measles and pneumonia.

“With Lebanon’s health system being stretched to breaking point by so many crises, many families can no longer afford to even travel to health facilities for basic immunisation services, medication and treatment,” said Ettie Higgins, Unicef’s acting representative in Lebanon.

“Repeatedly, anguished parents and families are unable to access basic health care for their children, as many dedicated health workers struggle to keep operations running during the crisis.”

From April to October 2021, the amount of young people who could not access health care when required rose from 28 per cent to 34 per cent, Unicef said, while 50 per cent of families could not secure the medicines they needed.

“I have prioritised my children’s routine immunisation and regular health check-ups at the expense of my own health. My conditions will have to wait,” Salwa, mother of Mustafa, told Unicef.

Unicef also spoke to a primary healthcare centre nurse called Eman, who said: “Many children aren’t receiving their essential routine immunisation because, even though we give the vaccines for free, their parents don’t have enough money to pay for the transport to bring them.”

From the first quarter of 2020 to the third quarter of the year, in four provinces that were assessed, the number of babies in refugee populations who died within the first four weeks of their life rose from 65 to 137.

“Lebanon had achieved remarkable success in reducing maternal deaths, but numbers rose again between 2019 and 2021, from 13.7 to 37 deaths per 1,000 live births,” Unicef said.

Unicef also reported an average drop of 27.3 per cent in the availability of paediatric beds across Lebanon, according to a rapid assessment conducted in March 2022.

Fuel, water and electricity shortages have left the public health sector struggling to keep safe operations running, while a lack of foreign currency has damaged efforts to import basic medicines and supplies.

“This has had a major impact on delivery of life-saving health services to children. The removal of subsidies on basic supplies, including food, fuel and some pharmaceuticals, has made matters worse,” Unicef said.

Some 58 per cent of hospitals have recorded drug shortages.

Food insecurity has also led to malnutrition, with seven per cent of children in Lebanon found to be stunted in 2021. In Palestinian and Syrian refugee populations, the rates were higher, with 10 per cent and 26 per cent, respectively.

Some 53 per cent of children had to skip a meal in October 2021, compared with 37 per cent six months earlier. The survey was conducted months before Russia invaded Ukraine, severely limiting Lebanon’s grain imports.

“More than 90 per cent per cent of children do not meet the standards for minimum meal frequency, dietary diversity or acceptable diet during the crucial period for growth and development up to the age of two,” Unicef said.

Updated: April 20, 2022, 11:31 AM
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