By Florence Gichoya
Last year there were religious sects across the country that locked their children from health officials during the polio vaccination exercise. The Catholic Church also warned its members to keep off the tetanus vaccine alleging that it could cause sterility on women. Such actions elicited a lot of debate between government and the groups with each vehemently standing their ground. Yet the vaccinations are the safest and most effective method of fighting disease. This begs the question, have we come this far that majority of the current population have forgotten how it used to be to have a disease outbreak?
From 24th to 30th April, Kenya joined the rest of the world in marking the ‘World Immunization Week’. The theme this year is ‘closing the immunization gap and reaching equity in immunization levels’. UNICEF Acting representative to Kenya, Dr.Pirkko Heinonen shared her experience when she was in Ethiopia in 1974 working as a medical doctor. By then, Ethiopia was facing a serious whooping cough outbreak. Today, majority of the Kenyan population may not have an idea on the ramifications of a whooping cough outbreak or measles outbreak because of the success of vaccines over the decades. “We have failed to communicate on the diseases we no longer see because of the success of vaccinations”, Dr, Heinonen reiterated. It is ironic that the opponents of immunizations programs were immunized when they were children yet they don’t want other children to benefit from the same intervention.
The choice on whether to immunize is not made by children but by their parents, guardians, medics, clergy or caregivers. The future generation’s posterity is at stake since children don’t have a choice on whether they are vaccinated or not. Life threatening diseases rob a child’s destiny because most of the immunizable diseases are very disabling if not causing death. Nominated Senator Harold Kipchumba contracted polio because of missing out on required immunization, he is Kenya’s immunization goodwill ambassador and stressed that the first years of a child determine if the child will live or not.
The health Cabinet Secretary, James Macharia emphasized that vaccination is the only weapon that can defeat diseases like small pox, polio, tetanus and others. “Out of 52 countries that were undertaking trials on the tetanus jab, it is only in Kenya where there was opposition and the process had to stall. Global Vaccine Action Plan (GVAP) is a framework to prevent millions of deaths by 2020 through universal access to vaccines for people in all communities regardless of where they are born, who they are or where the live. GVAP puts emphasis on a country’s ownership on immunization services, equity, sustainability, integration and embracing new vaccines and immunization technologies. As a result, in 2014 Kenya’s ministry of health launched the ‘National Immunization Policy’ which provides guidelines on immunization services in the country.
Immunization is free in all health facilities in Kenya as the government puts emphasis on achieving 90% pentavalent 3 coverage on elimination of maternal and neonatal tetanus. Currently, the coverage of immunization in the country varies; measles is at 87%, BCG at 97%, Pneumococal 3 at 85% and Polio 3 has the lowest coverage at 81%. The main challenges hindering immunization coverage of 100% are religious and cultural. Vaccination should be a shared responsibility between government, parents, guardians, community and religious leaders. It is cheaper to vaccinate a population than curing and managing a disease outbreak as evident in West Africa with Ebola.