Diseases such as polio, measles, meningitis and yellow-fever were once known for their fatality in The Gambia particularly causing high mortality rate in children. But they’ve since relatively disappeared due to the power of immunization coverage in the country.
Their re-emergence could be caused by the impact created by COVID-19 pandemic that’s currently ravaging the world. The claim that coronavirus vaccine is being developed in the west and will be tested on Africans has influenced mothers to stay at home with their infants.
The claim first appeared in the various WhatsApp groups where voice notes were used to warn parents to avoid taking their children to health facilities just to avoid being vaccinated. And then, the comments made by the two French doctors substantiated the social rumour – causing a worrying low-turnout.
“Personally, my husband decided that I should not go to the facility to receive any vaccinations when he heard this information. We were scared to get our 2 year-old-child vaccinated because we took the information seriously,” Mariama Bah, a mother of five tells The Chronicle.
However, Mariama has now changed her mind, stating that she got an assurance from a health worker who she trusts.
“I trust her very well. She convinced me about the existence of other diseases that may come as a result of abandoning the immunization. As much as I’m afraid of Coronavirus, polio is known to be deadly too. I know it. And I was able to convince my husband,” she said.
Amie Sanneh has also skipped her appointment at the health facility. “For me, it is not just about the vaccination fear. It’s also about practising social distancing. Ordinarily, there are many people who visit hospitals. It won’t be safe to be interacting with different people,” she said.
She’s breastfeeding a baby girl that she gave birth to a year ago.
Bundung Maternal and Child Health Hospital (BMCHH) is a specialized health facility for children and pregnant women. The hospital’s monthly target of immunization for the Bundung community alone stands at 417. But this target has not been met since February.
“The widespread information that people should not take vaccines or immunization because it’s claimed that there’s going to be a coronavirus vaccine to be tested on African children is a contributing factor to this,” says Mary Bobb, responsible for the hospital’s immunization unit.
However, she said the hospital has been ensuring that mothers are sensitized anytime they visit the facility on the implications of not having their children vaccinated.
She said they’ve also started the means of contact tracing by calling the telephone lines of mothers who miss to visit the facility, which, according to her, is working.
“In terms of voluntary visitations, it has not been very effective because this is a maternity hospital and we do receive a lot of people beyond our normal catchment areas but most of those people are not coming. It was less than 80 percent in terms of our targeted number,” she tells The Chronicle.
The Program Officer at the expanded immunization program at the Ministry of Health, Aja Kandeh said the government is working with WHO and UNICEF on the immunization but admitted that this year’s process has been affected by the outbreak of coronavirus.
“What the ministry has done is to write a memo signed by the director of health services to let all the service providers that the services are going to continue which all the health facilities are conducting currently,” she tells The Chronicle.
“But people out there at the individual level are not forthcoming to the health facilities to receive their vaccines due to one reason or the other. Maybe people have reserved themselves from going out to avoid getting contact with other people or maybe they are scared of going to the health facilities with the fear of getting contact who might be COVID positive and so on. Some of these things are really reducing the number of people visiting the hospitals but services are continuing.”
World Immunization Week – is celebrated annually between April 24 and April 30 – aims to promote the use of vaccines to protect people of all ages against disease. In Gambia, public health officials would usually visit communities to render the immunization services in order to widen the coverage.
“Visiting homes to give vaccination is not what we are doing for now because we are in a critical situation. Going from home to home can be another threat and it also involved some other logistic issues because somebody has to be mobile which could lead to the disruption of health guidelines for COVID-19 prevention,” Kandeh stated.
She said the government has provided the sanitary materials such as handwashing at the health facilities, providing PPE for the health workers to be put on so that anytime they are vaccinating or conducting immunization they can put it on.
The number of persons that are allowed in the facility to receive the vaccination has also been reduced, stating that fear should not hold anyone back as they are adhering to social distancing rules, she said.
The government is targeting 82 thousand children annually countrywide for vaccination.
“Immunization is the backbone of health. Without it, I can say we will be devastated with so many diseases. The measle, yellow fever etc. are all gotten rid of because of the immunization and they may come back if we don’t go for immunization,” she emphasised.
According to WHO, immunization saves millions of lives every year and is widely recognized as one of the world’s most successful and cost-effective health interventions. The WHO reveals that there are still nearly 20 million children in the world today who are getting the vaccines they need.
“Remember there were so many women and children in particular who died of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and yellow fever. Now that we have the vaccine, it’s very important we go in for the vaccine because they’re life-savings.”
The immunization officer at the UNICEF Banjul, Buya Jallow says Gambia currently has one of the highest immunization coverages which kept away many diseases that are still prevalent in many other countries such as meningitis, measles, yellow-fever etc.
“We understand that during this COVID-19 there have been a lot of talks about vaccination. But I always say, think about the COVID, the situation we are in now, if we had a vaccine for COVID we would not have been in this situation. For me that’s a strong reminder on how important and how vaccines prevented us from seeing a numerous outbreak in the world,” she tells The Chronicle.
She believes that one of the only ways to be prevented from certain illnesses is through the availability of vaccines.
“It’s a reminder that vaccines are not the enemy, vaccines are in fact saving lives. If we do not have vaccines for other diseases like measles, meningitis we will be having the pandemic all the time. I know a lot of people see it as Corona and they are talking about the vaccines negatively but in fact the vaccines are the reasons why it does not happen every year.”
Buya understands that Corona will have an impact on immunization. However, she said health facilities are continuing with the immunization across the country.
“It is important that while we are fighting COVID-19, we do not lose the fight against vaccines-preventable diseases that we already have. It’s important that we encourage care-givers to go for immunization,” she appeals.
“What we do not want to risk is that we avoid these services during the COVID, and when COVID goes, we begin to see all these new diseases which would cause much more damage and compromise all the gains we’ve made in terms of reducing the mobility and mortality from the preventable diseases.”