Immunisation: It’s better to be safe than sorry

Rumbidzayi Zinyuke
Health Buzz

Zimbabwe this week joins the world in commemorating World Immunisation week, amid calls for countries to increase targeted interventions to boost vaccination among children following the declines driven by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Immunisation remains one of the most effective interventions to save lives of millions of people across the world and protecting children from illness and disability.

Vaccinations not only protect children from deadly diseases such as polio, tetanus and diphtheria, but they also keep other children safe by eliminating or greatly decreasing dangerous diseases that used to spread from child to child.

For Zimbabweans, vaccination of children is not a new issue as the country has been at the forefront of promoting immunisation for children for decades.

And as such, a lot of milestones have been recorded over the years.

Through a rigorous polio vaccination programme, the country last had a wild polio virus case in 1989 and was subsequently declared polio-free by the World Health Organisation in 2005.

And despite being polio free, the country continues to ensure regular immunisation of children and when the need arises, as was the case last year when neighbouring Malawi and Mozambique reported cases of the disease. No cases were reported in Zimbabwe.

So immunisation does work!

The Centres for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that since 1988, the polio vaccine has prevented more than 10 million cases of paralysis and saved the lives of approximately 500 000 children globally.

Besides the polio vaccine, Zimbabwe has also rolled out the measles vaccine, which has been effective.

With parts of Manicaland being prone to measles outbreak, like what happened last year, immunisation has been able to save the lives of millions of children who were affected and those that could have been affected.

At least 3 291 suspected and confirmed cases of measles were reported in the province, while 349 children succumbed to the disease.

The figures could be higher if combined with those from other provinces where the disease had spread.

But owing to the targeted interventions, Manicaland alone was able to achieve a 95 percent success rate in the vaccination of children in the hotspots districts of Mutasa, Buhera, Makoni, Chimanimani, Mutare and Nyanga districts, which were the most severely affected.

These are just but a few examples of the successes that have been recorded in the country.

Zimbabwe has not been alone in this fight to immunise children and ensure a safer and better life for them, the world has been taking the necessary steps to prevent illness and death from avoidable diseases.

However, despite the decades of progress in childhood immunisation, the collective efforts are still falling short as countries fail to goals to vaccinate every child.

The Covid-19 pandemic darkened this picture.

According to the State of the World’s Children report 2023, more than a decade of hard-earned gains in routine childhood immunisation have been eroded in the past three years.

Hence this year’s immunisation week campaign is set on reversing the declines in childhood vaccination recorded in over 100 countries since the Covid-19 pandemic.

Not only were health systems overburdened, clinics were closed, supplies of medication and other important equipment were minimal and many mothers could not access services because of the lockdown restrictions.

Statistics show that over 25 million children missed at least one vaccination in 2021 alone, and outbreaks of preventable diseases, including measles, diphtheria, polio and yellow fever are already becoming more prevalent and severe.

There is indeed a need to play catch up.

While vaccines have generated some controversy over safety, no convincing evidence of harm has been found.

And although children can have a reaction to any vaccine, the important thing to know is that the benefits of vaccinations far outweigh the possible side effects.

The coming in of the Covid-19 vaccines also served to heighten the misconceptions.

For example, according to experts, the conspiracy theories that surrounded the introduction of the vaccine had a negative impact on the rollout of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine which is the most important tool in the fight against cervical cancer.

Already, cancer of the cervix is the most common type of cancer in Zimbabwe accounting for 39,2 percent of the total number of cancer cases in 2018.

So the HPV vaccine is the best and most important tool to protect the younger girls and women from getting the deadly disease.

Earlier this year, Dr Sydney Mukonoweshuro, a general practitioner, said Zimbabwe had been the eighth African country to adopt the HPV vaccine, a development which had placed the country high among the countries implementing strategies to end cervical cancer.

“We have had a huge run in terms of success of the HPV vaccination programme. But when Covid came with its own vaccine, which was surrounded with a lot of conspiracy theories, we began to get some parents who were doubting that the HPV vaccine was actually that and not the Covid vaccine. So we are now dealing with a social issue of misinformation when it comes to the HPV vaccine which is the most important interventions towards fighting cancer of the cervix,” he said.

“What needs to happen is an education programme for people and parents to understand that the HPV vaccine is very safe, it is not related in any way to Covid and that they should encourage all the young girls to actually get vaccinated.”

The pandemic caused more difficulties than could be told but the focus is now on regaining the lost ground.

As WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Millions of children and adolescents, particularly in lower-income countries, have missed out on life-saving vaccinations, while outbreaks of these deadly diseases have risen. WHO is supporting dozens of countries to restore immunization and other essential health services.

Catching up is a top priority. No child should die of a vaccine-preventable disease.”

Village health workers have played a major role in ensuring that children in hard to reach areas receive their routine vaccinations and this model has worked well for Zimbabwe, even in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This group had, and still has the power to move the vaccination numbers up hence they are an important part of the initiative to improve uptake of vaccines.

Hence, leveraging on them to push immunisation will keep Zimbabwe’s drive working.

Because fully immunised children have a better chance of living up to their full potential, both intellectually and physically.

They can make their contribution to the success and development of their communities.

A healthy people lead productive and prosperous lives!

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