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Children of Myanmar’s conflict zones deprived of key immunizations

Children whose families have fled fighting in Myanmar’s conflict zones are being deprived of essential immunizations due to lack of access to health care, refugees and medical professionals said Thursday.

From infancy to 18 months of age, children are required to receive 12-13 routine immunizations to ensure healthy growth and protection from disease. They include vaccines designed to protect against tuberculosis, measles, hepatitis B, diphtheria, chickenpox, tetanus, polio, meningitis, severe pneumonia, Japanese encephalitis, rubella, severe diarrhea and cervical cancer.

But doctors told RFA’s Myanmar Service that regular injections are often not an option for families caught in fighting between junta troops and the armed opposition in the nearly 15 months since the military seized power in a coup.

They said small children — especially those in the war-torn remote border areas of Kayin, Kayah, and Chin states and Sagaing region — have been most affected by the failure to immunize, which can lead to stunted growth, severe illness and even death from otherwise treatable medical conditions.

A refugee mother from Kayin state sheltering near Myanmar’s border with Thailand told RFA that she was recently forced to flee her village with the baby girl she had given birth to only days earlier.

“I had to leave my village with my two-week old baby, and she hasn’t received any vaccines yet,” she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“We had to sleep on the other side of the river [in Thailand] because of the fighting and the baby got sick as the weather was very cold for three or four days. I was so worried for her. The medics tending the refugees here gave us some Paracetamol and she got better, but I wish we could get her vaccinated.”

Parents have described a similar situation in Sagaing region, where the military has been burning homes to the ground in raids on villages, they say have provided haven for anti-junta People’s Defense Force (PDF) paramilitaries.

A woman from Sagaing’s Yinmabin township Chinbon village said she has been on the move with her young child since her home was recently targeted by military airstrikes.

“We’ve been running from place to place, so there is no medication, no vaccines for these children,” said the woman, who also declined to be named.

“Many children in the area suffer from poor health, and we just have to give them whatever we can find. There is no proper medicine. We don’t have clinics or hospitals around. My baby is now 15 months old and hasn’t been vaccinated because we’ve been on the run all this time in the jungle.”

Lack of medical care since coup

Before the coup, Myanmar’s regional Ministries of Health under the democratically elected National League for Democracy government organized routine immunizations for children through hospitals, clinics and rural health centers. In some towns and villages, children were vaccinated by health workers at administrative offices and churches.

But since the takeover, many parents in Myanmar’s conflict zones told RFA that their children have never received a full medical exam or routine immunizations.

Than Naing Soe, the director of the Health Awareness Center under the junta’s Ministry of Health, rejected claims that families lack access to immunizations for their children.

“We’ve been providing vaccinations for children constantly at hospitals and clinics. We can do that,” he said. “Public health services are also being administered in wards and villages, while hospital-based immunization activities are gaining momentum.”

But a mother in Chin state’s Tedim township, where anti-junta resistance is strong, alleged that vaccines are not being delivered to health facilities in the region.

“In Chin State, no health services or medicine has been available since the coup,” she said, noting that many midwives in rural clinics have joined the [anti-junta] Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), while those who didn’t have no supplies.

“We haven’t received anything since the coup. Medical supplies stopped coming in a long time ago. What were we supposed to do? We have had to do whatever it takes to care for our children.”

Rebuilding the country

A doctor in the CDM, who gave her name only as Olivia, said children are at risk of developmental conditions if they do not receive their required immunizations within a specified age range.

“During the 18 months after birth, the baby should be vaccinated in a timely manner. … Only then will they have a chance to fully develop mentally and physically,” she said.

“If not vaccinated, their health and safety is at risk. … Losing children means losing key human resources needed to rebuild the country.”

The United Nations Children’s Fund said in February that nearly 1 million children in Myanmar are deprived of access to routine immunizations, while around 5 million are at risk of contracting disease due to a lack of vitamin supplements.

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.