• The threat of resurgence of lethal childhood diseases such as pneumonia, measles, diarrhoea, whooping cough, tuberculosis, meningitis, and polio has become real
• Last year, the Ministry of Health warned that the country was at risk of measles outbreaks due to a drop in childhood vaccine coverage
Kenya and the rest of the world observed World Immunization Week in the last week of April.
What’s clear though is that the health sector must refocus its efforts on immunization campaigns to protect children from the growing risk of contracting resurgent old diseases.
The threat of resurgence of lethal childhood diseases such as pneumonia, measles, diarrhoea, whooping cough, tuberculosis, meningitis, and polio has become real in the last two years of Covid-19, as global health systems have shifted their entire focus to fighting the virus at the expense of other critical vaccines.
As a result of the pandemic, healthcare systems were overburdened and lacked adequate supplies, and immunization campaigns did not reach the people who needed them. Concurrently, a flood of misinformation has eroded public trust in vaccines.
According to WHO, global vaccine coverage fell from 86 per cent in 2019 to 83 per cent in 2020, with an estimated 23 million children under the age of one missing their basic vaccines, the highest number since 2009.
By 2020, the number of completely unvaccinated children had increased by 3.4 million. Only 19 vaccine introductions were reported in 2020, which is less than half of the total for the previous two decades. In addition, 1.6 million more girls were not fully protected against human papillomavirus (HPV) in 2020 compared to the previous year.
Last year, the Ministry of Health warned that the country was at risk of measles outbreaks due to a drop in childhood vaccine coverage, citing outbreaks in Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, West Pokot and Tana River, among other counties.
According to the ministry at the time, only one out of every five children is immunized against measles and rubella. The massive increase in the number of unvaccinated children, the accumulation of vulnerable children to over 2.1 million, and the pandemic have all contributed to exacerbating the situation.
Without a doubt, the figures above paint a bleak picture, and action is required. As the embers of the pandemic die down, it is an opportune time to refocus our attention on children's immunization.
Indeed, in the words of WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus, “This World Immunization week is therefore essential to get immunization back on track and launch catch up campaigns to ensure that everyone, everywhere has access to life saving vaccines.”
The significance of immunization cannot be overstated. Immunization is undeniably one of the most successful and cost-effective health interventions in the world. Indeed, according to the WHO, immunization has been shown to prevent between two and three million deaths each year, as well as to reduce morbidity and mortality suffering globally in a safe and cost-effective manner.
Immunization protects children and adults from vaccine-preventable diseases, preventing debilitating illness, disability, and death. When combined with other health interventions such as vitamin A supplementation to boost children's immune systems, deworming medicine, growth monitoring, and the distribution of insecticide-treated nets to prevent malaria, immunization becomes a major force for child survival, according to the WHO.
Furthermore, the benefits of immunization are increasingly being extended to adolescents and adults, providing protection against life-threatening diseases such as influenza, meningitis, and adult cancers. Vaccines also provide benefits other than improved health outcomes, such as lower medical costs and less time spent by parents and health care workers caring for sick children. These savings benefit families, communities, and nations through improved education, economic growth, and poverty reduction.
As a result, it goes without saying that we cannot afford to let down our guard. There are three ways we can step up efforts to increase vaccine penetration across the country and reach the unreached.
We must improve education and communication about the benefits of vaccinations to the target populations. There is a need to reassure mothers, for example, that hospitals and clinics are still safe to visit and will not expose them to the risks of contracting Covid-19. These campaigns can be carried out in collaboration with community leaders, government and non-government organizations, religious institutions, and community radio stations.
The second intervention involves the establishment of fixed immunization clinics in low-income areas to bring services closer to those who need them the most. The availability of these facilities should then be accompanied by a public awareness campaign about their existence and significance.
Third, all stakeholders must consider establishing mobile immunization clinics, particularly in the most marginalized communities, to ensure that they are not left behind.
Finally, it is critical to recognize that, as tomorrow's leaders, children's ability to protect the future for us all is dependent on what we do today to secure their rights. We cannot afford to drop the ball.
Dr. Ngwiri is paediatrician and Head of Clinical Services, Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital