By Eva Gilliam
LUSAKA, Zambia, 26 July 2010 – In the Matero neighbourhood here in the Zambian capital last week, three-year-old Kaseko led her Aunt Sarah by the hand to the health clinic. Once there, they joined the long queue of mothers and crying babies.
|VIDEO: 19 July 2010 - UNICEF's Eva GIlliam reports on the vaccination campaign organized to counter a recent measles outbreak in Zambia.|
“This morning, she told me I had to take her to the clinic,” said Kaseko’s aunt. “She said she didn’t want to get sick – that she needed to see the doctor and get the injection.”
Several thousand children and adults in Zambia have fallen ill in an outbreak of measles that has swept through eastern and southern Africa. In response, the Zambian Department of Health devoted its most recent Integrated National Child Health Week to measles vaccination.
|A health worker marks a boy's finger to indicate that he has been vaccinated against measles at a health outreach post in Lishiko village, located in Zambia's Lusaka province.|
The campaign ran from 19 to 24 July. It was promoted by a mass media campaign designed to inform as many people as possible of the need for immunization. Radio spots, TV advertisements and posters carried the message: “Measles are deadly; your child must be vaccinated.”
Measles, a viral infection of the respiratory system, was thought to be under control in Zambia until recently. It is a highly contagious disease that can cause severe complications, including pneumonia, diarrhoea, encephalitis and even death.
Regular vaccination campaigns, conducted approximately every four years, previously had managed to curtail the disease. But now the measles virus has resurfaced in the region. Infections have spiked in high-density populations, including the district of Lusaka.
|Three-year-old Kaseko and her Aunt Sarah wait to be vaccinated at Matero Clinic in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, during the country's measles immunization campaign.|
Monica Phiri, a mother of four, brought her son to receive care at the Chawama Measles Isolation Unit in the capital during Child Health Week – which, besides measles vaccinations, provided child growth monitoring, oral polio vaccine, de-worming tablets and vitamin A supplements.
“My son was coughing a lot, he had sores in his mouth and had a fever, so I brought him here,” said Ms. Phiri. “He is the only one of my four children was not vaccinated.”
Curbing the outbreak
Zambia’s measles immunization efforts are targeting children between nine months and four years of age. In Lusaka, because of the high number of cases, the age has been extended, and children form six months old to five years old are being vaccinated.
|A nurse gives a young girl a de-worming tablet at Matero Clinic in Lusaka, the Zambian capital, at the start of the 19-24 July measles immunization campaign.|
“In the last couple of decades, measles was one of the five biggest diseases leading to death in children under five,’ said UNICEF Zambia Health Specialist Rodgers Mwale. “From 2003, Zambia conducted a measles ‘catch-up’ campaign. We vaccinated children from six months to 15 years old – a target group of about 4.5 million children.”
After the catch-up campaign, measles cases decreased drastically. Following another vaccination campaign for children in 2007, measles prevalence dropped further, with no deaths and only about 500 cases reported until this year.
To date in 2010, however, about 80 deaths from measles have been documented in Zambia. In the region as a whole, as of mid-June, the outbreak affected some 48,000 children in 14 countries, causing over 700 deaths.
Despite the pressing need for measles vaccination, a funding shortfall of more than $1 million caused the Child Health Week in Zambia to be scaled back somewhat.
|A child with measles takes a dose of medicine in an isolation ward at Chawama Health Centre in Lusaka, Zambia.|
“Because of this gap in resources, we had to reduce the age of the children targeted in the campaign nationwide – so that our health teams could handle the numbers and have enough vaccines,” said the UNICEF Health Specialist, Mr. Mwale. He went on to explain that a full four-week outreach and information campaign had to be reduced to two weeks; individual vaccination teams were cut in size from seven health workers to five; and the overall number of teams nationwide dropped from 1,700 to 1,500.
According the World Health Organization, if the Government of Zambia can achieve 90 per cent immunization coverage over the next four years, it can get measles back under control.
Similar measles vaccination campaigns are also planned for Zimbabwe, Malawi and Angola.