BAGHDAD, Iraq—In the Al Aelaam district of Baghdad, two women carrying a cooler full of polio vaccine and pieces of blue chalk go house to house, knocking on doors and squeezing two drops of the slightly bitter liquid into the mouth of each child younger than 5.
Though most of the children wail, mothers and fathers smile as they watch vaccination teams put a mark on the front gate of each home, noting who's been immunized and who hasn't.
For the parents, it's the return of a welcome tradition that assures their children are safe from at least one threat in dangerous post-invasion Iraq. For Iraqi officials, it's a small step in a long campaign to rebuild the country's public health system, which was devastated by the war.
After a frightening outbreak in 2000, polio was eradicated from Iraq in 2001. But like so many other diseases—typhoid, hepatitis and tuberculosis among them—it loomed anew as a danger after U.S.-led forces invaded in March 2003.
Air strikes destroyed a Baghdad immunizations warehouse, wasting millions of doses. Vaccines refrigerated elsewhere were spoiled during the frequent post-war blackouts.
"The program was completely paralyzed after the war," said Nima S. Abid, the director general of public health in Iraq's Ministry of Health.
Even after UNICEF delivered new vaccines, continuing problems with the power supply made it difficult for local clinics to keep them properly cooled, while fighting and street violence hampered distribution.
While officials predict Iraq's polio campaign will fall short of its goal of reaching 95 percent of all children younger than 5, they don't expect to finish far below that figure. The lack of security in communities such as Sadr City, Fallujah and Najaf makes it impossible to reach everyone, Nassar said.
Still, locals clinics are trying, "sending boys, not girls" to do the immunizations in violent areas, said Wisail Abdul Rahaman. The doctors they send are usually well received, she said.
"Last year we did not get the vaccination. We were afraid; we were very worried," said Hala Samir, a 24-year-old resident. A friend's daughter contracted polio several years ago, Samir said, and "the child is still paralyzed."
"This takes care of my two sons," she said. "This is a good thing, a good day."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+vaccine