Africa, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health

HEALTH-UGANDA: Measles Vaccination Raises Controversy

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, Oct 21 2003 (IPS) - Uganda’s health officials should heave a sigh of relief following ‘successful’ measles immunisation campaigns, which targeted 12.7 million children.

The campaign, which was conducted Oct. 15-19, ran into some problems.

In the western district of Mbarara some pupils reportedly ran out of the classroom and hid in mango trees when the vaccines arrived.

In the eastern district of Kayunga, a local councillor was beaten by her husband for taking their 10-year old daughter for immunisation.

Local newspapers said Susan Mutoonyi, 40, was admitted to Kayunga Hospital in a critical condition after her husband, John Mukabile allegedly beat her for taking Jane Nabwiso for vaccination. These protests had their origins in 1989 when a consignment of expired measles vaccines was unintentionally administered on children. Led by former Prime Minister Samson Kisekka, the campaign left some children develop abnormalities like skin rushes and hearing impairments. Kisekka later apologised for the incidence.

But the memory seems fresh in some minds over a decade later.

To convince the public that the vaccine was safe, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Country Representative Oladipo Walker and officials from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) made it a point to be the first to take their children for vaccination. Local women doctors also took it upon themselves to immunise their children as proof that all was well.

In his state address to the nation, minister of health Jim Muhwezi assured Ugandans that the vaccine was safe. "The main objective of the strategy is to reduce morbidity, mortality and disability due to measles," said Muhwezi.

Every year, 60,000 children suffer from measles countrywide, with 3,000 deaths. Some 93 percent of these cases occur among children below 15 years and 7 percent among children above 15 years, he said.

Uganda’s ministry of health has been providing measles immunisation in the last 20 years through the Uganda National Expanded Programme on Immunisation (UNEPI). Even with a vaccine offered by the health delivery systems, measles infection has been rated the 4th commonest cause of illness in Uganda. This is due to low routine immunisation coverage, which is at 77 percent below the 95 percent coverage required.

Previous campaigns targeted children below five years but they were not effective as they covered only nine percent of the measles burden, Muhwezi said.

Some Ugandans still think a second doze of the vaccine seems suspicious and unnecessary.

"I would not immunise my child with the measles vaccine for the second time. He has already been immunised. It would thus be criminal for someone to immunise my child from the school without my consent," said Andrew Ochola, a businessman.

Prior to the exercise, sections of the community, including Members of Parliament asked President Yoweri Museveni ‘to show a good example’ by vaccinating his grandchildren first.

Museveni had come under fire, following a story in the local media that he had spent 180 million U.S. dollars to send his daughter to deliver a baby in Germany using the official presidential jet. In response, Museveni said he did so because he did not trust Ugandan doctors.

"If Museveni does not trust Ugandan doctors, why should we trust these doctors? We, too, want our kids to live," said David Kiddu, 34, a taxi driver.

During the launch of the official campaign in the eastern town of Soroti on Oct. 15, Museveni urged Ugandans to shun ‘saboteurs’ who were against the exercise.

Religious leaders also urged their followers to co-operate. The Queen of Buganda, Sylvia Nagginda had been at the forefront of the campaign. As a respected figurehead in the Baganda community, the largest ethnic group in Uganda, her campaign was expected to yield results.

Deputy local administrator for Kampala, Samuel Mpimbaza Hashaka told IPS that the campaign had gone well in the capital.

The Minister of Gender and Social Development Zoe Bakoko Bakoru, who is also a nurse, took park in vaccinating the children at various centres. "Some of the children aged between 10 and 15 were even coming by themselves and were excited. The turn-up had been overwhelming and the parents had been co-operative," Hashaka said.

Paul Kagwa, of the ministry of health, said rebel-infested northern districts of Gulu, Kitgum and Padyer also had good responses in spite of insecurity there.

"These districts scored very high. In these areas, the people are living in Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) camps, so it’s easier to mobilise them," he said.

People from neighbouring Kenya, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo living in Uganda also benefited from the immunisation. "Disease has no boundary," Kagwa said.

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