Roselyne Sachiti Features Editor
Johane Sakupwanya of Murambinda in Manicaland Province in the eastern part of Zimbabwe lives in regret. A widower, he takes care of his two children aged four and seven. His nightmare began in 2015 when his wife Martha Sakupwanya under the care of a church midwife, died of haemorrhaging soon after labour. The “midwife” also failed to save the baby which could not breathe properly.
Four and a half years earlier, the couple had lost a five-year old baby to measles, something they ignored as they believed God was sending a message that they should have more children. The year 2010, when their child died Zimbabwe experienced its worst outbreak of measles which resulted in over 10 000 confirmed cases and over 500 deaths.
“When the vaccination teams from the Ministry of Health and Child Care came, we packed our bags and went to our cousin’s plot in Chivhu. We came back after they had left. Vaccinating our children was against our church doctrine. But we paid dearly as our son died a few months later,” he said recently.
Losing his wife was his turning point as he realised how dangerous his devotion to his religion was. He had no choice but to immediately cut ties with the church which shuns conventional medical treatment as a matter of principle.
Today, Sakupwanya is an advocate for immunisation. In his spare time, he preaches the dangers of not vaccinating children. Those who care listen to him. Others who do not care say he is crazy. But their comments do not move him.
He is happy. Many of his former congregates now travel to Harare to secretly have their kids immunised and return to their faith. Over the past five years there has been a remarkable decline in infant and child mortality in Zimbabwe, a large contributor being immunisation drives. In September last year, the Minister of Health and Child Care Dr David Parirenyatwa and other partners, including WHO and UNICEF, launched the National Immunisation Days (NIDs) in Harare.
The 2015 NIDs were important as for the first time, the country vaccinated children nine months to below 15 years with the Measles and Rubella combination (MR) vaccine.
Rubella infection in children is similar to measles but it tends to be a mild infection.
Although measles outbreaks have not occurred in the country since 2010, there have been increasing cases of rubella infection as well as CRS reported, hence the need to take them seriously. In many other African countries vaccination has been at the forefront of disease prevention and under five mortality reduction.
Immunisation programmes in East and Southern African countries have witnessed significant progress over the past decade with routine immunisation (DPT3) coverage increasing from less than 50 percent at national level about a decade ago, to over 80 percent in the last two years.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the introduction and expansion of the use of innovative strategies such as Reaching Every District (RED), Child Health Days (CHDs), Child Health Weeks (CHWs), Extended Outreach Strategies (EOS), catch up and follow up measles campaigns have contributed immensely to this achievement.
The African leadership has also for a long time shown its commitment to health issues and continues to discuss issues pertaining to such. One such a platform will be the Ministerial Conference on Immunisation in Africa to be held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia between February 24 and 25, 2016.
This is the first-ever ministerial-level convening with a singular focus on ensuring that people across the continent can get access to life-saving vaccines. Ministers of health, finance, and other line ministries, will hopefully discuss issues like inadequate funding that slows down immunisation programmes in their countries.
Over the past five years, 50 countries in Africa have successfully introduced at least one new vaccine into their immunisation programme, yet many African countries have been slow to make progress on other nationally agreed immunisation targets, and one in five children in the region still does not receive the vaccines they need.
The conference – hosted by the World Health Organisation Regional Offices for Africa (AFRO) and the Eastern Mediterranean (EMRO) in conjunction with the African Union Commission – will also provide a powerful platform for African policymakers and advocates to celebrate progress toward expanding immunisation coverage; discuss strategies for tackling the biggest challenges facing vaccine efforts; foster country ownership for sustainable financing for immunisation; and advocate for greater engagement with all stakeholders to ensure sustainable demand for immunisation.
“The ministerial conference is a unique opportunity to secure buy-in at the highest levels for prioritising immunisation across the continent,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
“With strong commitment from everyone, we can make universal access to immunisation a reality.”
In collaboration with the ministerial conference, WHO and PATH will also celebrate the success of the Meningitis Vaccine Project, which resulted in the first tailor-made vaccine for use against meningitis A in the 26 African countries in the meningitis belt.
The event will convene representatives from these countries and immunisation partners. Since the ground-breaking MenAfriVac® vaccine was introduced in 2010, more than 230 million people in 16 countries have been protected, resulting in the control and near elimination of deadly meningitis A disease outbreaks across the meningitis belt.
In 2014, nearly 8 million infants (21 percent) on the African continent did not receive the required three doses of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) vaccine, a strong indicator that health systems are under equipped and underfunded to deliver other vaccines and health care services.
“We know that vaccines are one of the most cost-effective solutions in global health and, as a continent, we must do more to accelerate progress and reach more children,” said Dr Ala Alwan, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean.
“Vaccinating children against life-threatening diseases is a great investment in socio-economic development in Africa and the world as a whole.” The ministerial conference is expected to convene more than 500 political leaders, technical experts and advocates from across Africa and globally.
Hopefully issues such as sustainable financing for immunisation, the role of communities in driving coverage and demand for vaccines, building on the success of Africa’s polio eradication initiative, and building stronger Africa and around the world, will be in the forefront at the summit.