#VaccinesWork to protect children in Ukraine, amid measles outbreak

Overcoming misconceptions and saving the lives of children

By Iuliia Poberezhna
A one-year-old girl is administered her first dose of the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine at a clinic in Kyiv, Ukraine.
UNICEF/UN0201055/Krepkih

25 April 2018

As a mother of two young children, Natalia was once told by her doctor that vaccinations were unnecessary. Now – with a measles outbreak gripping Ukraine –Natalia is glad she chose to ignore the doctor’s advice and instead vaccinate her children.

This recent national outbreak has affected 16,500 people and killed 13, including nine children. According to a UNICEF poll taken in 2016, 16 percent of parents in Ukraine have refused vaccinations for their children. 

Natalia with her two children in a park in Kyiv.
UNICEF/2018/Krepkih
Natalia, with her two young children in a park in Kyiv.

“Many parents I know still refuse to vaccinate their children,” says Natalia, whose children received the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella. “They say the vaccines are bad, that they have adverse effects. My children are fine and I think their health is more important.”

Ukraine’s Ministry of Health has been leading the outbreak response since 2017 with support from UNICEF and other partners. While less than half of all children in the country were vaccinated against measles as part of routine immunization in 2016 (via the MMR vaccine), the number more than doubled in 2017 to over 90 percent, according to the Ministry.

Valentyna Ginzburg, a doctor who heads Kyiv’s state healthcare department, says she and her team have been working to combat the measles outbreak since first being alerted to a rise in infections following the New Year and Orthodox Christmas celebrations in 2018.

“We received information on the incidence rates of measles in Kyiv,” Dr. Ginzburg says. “We knew we needed to take rapid action to prevent a situation similar to other regions, such as Odesa, where there had already been fatalities amongst both adults and children from the illness.”

Dr. Ginzburg explains how she and her colleagues had to act quickly to stop the spread of the disease in Kyiv.
UNICEF/2018/Krepkih
Dr. Ginzburg explains how she and her colleagues had to act quickly to stop the spread of the disease in Kyiv.

Measles is one of the most contagious diseases around and we understood that if we were not proactive and did not control it, it would have not been long before we had the same situation as in other regions.

Dr. Ginzburg

In the four days that followed, 11,000 children were vaccinated in Kyiv. Around 48,000 children were immunized from January to March, a tally that would normally take 12 months to reach.

Following national recommendations on outbreak response, authorities in Kyiv launched a ‘situation room’ to collect the latest information and coordinate response actions. Being vaccinated was also made a pre-condition for children attending schools and preschools to help stop the spread. The city administration also encouraged medical specialists to visit schools and raise awareness of vaccination among both teachers and parents. 

Maryna Stefanenko, a pediatrician at a clinic on the left bank of Kyiv, gives more details. “We had a lot of people coming in, even those who normally go to private clinics,” she says. Dr Stefanenko’s clinic usually administers around 80 vaccines per day, but during the outbreak they were immunizing around 1,200 people each day.  

On the other side of the city, in Obolon district, another clinic rushed to meet demand. A pediatrician there, Dr Natalia Yatsenko, explained that as part of her job, she must sign the paperwork for parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. She says she spends a lot of time explaining the benefits of vaccination, as well as the risks for children who do not receive their shot. Before the measles outbreak, she managed to talk some 10 per cent of objectors into changing their mind. However, during the outbreak, she did not even have to persuade them – many parents who were once against vaccinations were very keen to bring their children to the clinic.

A young boy receives several vaccines at a time at Dr Natalia Yatsenko clinic in Kyiv.
UNICEF/UN0201084/Krepkih
A young boy receives several vaccines at a time at Dr Natalia Yatsenko clinic in Kyiv.

Another factor in the response? The effects of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. “We had some internally displaced people from the eastern regions who came to our clinic,” says Yatsenko. “They told us that their children’s vaccination records had been falsified, and now they wanted to vaccinate them for real. So we vaccinated them.”

“We also vaccinated some parents,” adds Stefanenko. “The parents bought the vaccines for themselves from the pharmacy then brought them to us and we administered the shots.”

Dr. Ginzburg also advocated with the Kyiv authorities to address one of the biggest issues the country is struggling with - access to vaccines for adults and health workers. “All health workers had to be checked and those who required vaccination had to be immunized,” she says. “Then we were sure that, no matter what, the doctors wouldn’t be incapacitated.” The city administration also made sure the municipal pharmacy chain had measles vaccines available for adults.

Artem, six, receives his second dose of the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine in Kyiv.
UNICEF/UN0201063/Krepkih
Artem, six, receives his second dose of the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine in Kyiv.

Although vaccines for children were available in 2017, increased demand had depleted stocks in some regions. To help replenish stocks, a new expedited supply of MMR vaccines was delivered by UNICEF at the request of the Ministry of Health at the end of February 2018, and another 800,000 doses are due this month, to ensure sufficient vaccines for both routine immunization of children and those who may have missed their immunizations in previous years.

Significant progress has been made in reaching more children with vaccines, yet still an estimated 1.5 million children die globally from vaccine preventable diseases every year and an estimated half a million children in the region are still not immunized. Millions of lives can be saved by extending basic health services like routine immunization to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and UNICEF is on the ground immunizing millions of children each year.

Vaccines protect children against disease and death, saving up to three million lives every year. In short, #VaccinesWork.