BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraq launched a nationwide polio vaccination campaign Tuesday, struggling to combat the re-emergence of a disease it had conquered before the Persian Gulf war and sanctions undermined its medical and sanitation systems.
Using vaccines purchased under the U.N. oil-for-food program that allows Iraq to skirt trade sanctions to help its people, the government planned to target 3.5 million children under the age of 5.
Vaccinations were offered free at state-run clinics across the country starting Tuesday and ending Saturday. A second round will be administered over another five days beginning April 25.
At a clinic in a working-class Baghdad neighborhood Tuesday, parents slung their babies and toddlers onto a cot. Then nurses held the children's mouths open and trickled in the vaccination drops, their bitterness in most cases bringing instant tears. Soon, the clinic was filled with the wails of angry children.
UNICEF, which along with the World Health Organization was helping Iraq in the vaccination campaign, had declared Iraq polio free in 1990, meaning it had seen no trace of the disease for three years. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and precipitated the 1991 Gulf war.
The disease that causes childhood paralysis began to reappear in the mid-1990s -- last year, 77 cases were diagnosed. UNICEF, as the United Nations Children's Fund is known, blamed an infrastructure weakened by both war and international trade sanctions imposed to punish Iraq for the invasion of Kuwait.
The sanctions have pushed millions of Iraqis into poverty and malnutrition, which affects their ability to fight infectious disease.
Homemaker Salwa Kazam, who brought her youngest son, 11-month-old Mohammed, to be vaccinated Tuesday, said life was much different when her oldest son was born 11 years ago.
"Then, everything was so easy. The sanitation system was better, everything was better," she said. "Polio vaccinations then were just a precaution, but there was no serious concern."
Parents alerted by an intensive advertising campaign on radio and television, in newspapers and at mosques in recent weeks brought their children to the clinic scrubbed and in their best clothes.
Polio is highly infectious. It usually strikes children under 5, affecting the spinal cord and brain and causing paralysis and sometimes death.