Eritrea maintains high immunization coverage despite the COVID-19 pandemic
The country sustains one of the highest immunization rates in the region
Eritrea’s Ministry of Health has done a commendable job to ensure high immunization coverages despite the COVID-19 pandemic during most of 2020. UNICEF has been a partner to the government’s immunization efforts since 1991 and this strengthened partnership has resulted in Eritrea achieving and maintaining one of the highest immunization rates in the region.
Although Eritrea, like the rest of the world, was affected by the COVID-19 induced restrictions and lockdowns in 2020, that did not deter the Ministry of Health to pause or delay the routine immunization services for children and women.
Even more laudable was the significant increase in vaccine uptake in 2020 as compared to 2019. The data revealed that 1,495,838 children received vaccination shots in 2020 as compared to 1,310,410 in 2019, which was 185,428 more children immunised – an increase of 14 per cent per cent as compared to the previous year.
This success is attributed to the proactive efforts of the Ministry of Health (MoH) in intensifying community mobilization, which allayed the fears of the service providers and community members, as well as enhancing access to rural communities through outreach services. The MoH in 2020 conducted four rounds of integrated mobile outreach services in the 16 hard to reach districts in four regions of the country.
Good planning and innovative thinking helped spur this achievement
“When we detected from routine data the early signs of declining coverage in April 2020, we promptly set out to develop an immunization continuity plan with the Ministry of Health and other partners. The plan factored in uninterrupted delivery of vaccines and other supplies, sub-national level supervision to ensure continuation of immunization services at the fixed immunization sites as well as through outreach services provided by the mobile clinics,” says Geoffrey Acaye, Chief of Child Survival and Development, UNICEF.
It was imperative to build vaccine awareness through various channels for Risk Communication (PSAs and 24/7 Call Centre) towards sensitising communities to increase vaccination demand so that parents would bring their children to be vaccinated. The Health Promotion Division of the MoH disseminated key messages to galvanize community members to continue to use the services
Caution was also undertaken to ensure that health teams and community members were abiding by Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) measures at all health facilities, out-reach points and the mobile clinic services.
Strategic partnerships to ensure regular supplies and technical support augmented high coverage
UNICEF has been working in partnership with the MoH for over three decades to support immunization and health services. This has resulted in some notable progress, including the nation’s ability to achieve more than 95 per cent coverage since 2015. To date, Eritrea’s routine immunization programme currently includes 12 vaccine-preventable diseases.
Since 2014, UNICEF has been providing biannual air charters to deliver vaccines and critical medical supplies into the country, in April and in October. This was maintained in 2020 even when even when airports around the world were shut down. This helped Eritrea avoid any stock-out of vaccines and non- vaccine supplies.
Eritrea has adequate cold-chain equipment (CCE) to safely store and transport the vaccines from the National Vaccine Store in Asmara to the most remote communities of the country. To date, UNICEF, with generous funding from donors like the GAVI, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and UNICEF’s own funding, has procured and commissioned 496 Cold Chain Equipment (CCE) nationwide. Of these, 348 CCEs are the Solar Direct Driven which are eco-friendly and sustainable for the environment.
All the 295 Health Facilities nationwide which are currently providing immunization services have at least one Solar Direct Driven refrigerator and plans to install 55 new solar driven refrigerators to replace the obsolete ones.
Looking ahead and ensuring no one is left behind
The Ministry of Health seeks to build on these achievement to spur increased investment, systems strengthening and innovative thinking to sustain the gains towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals related to child health and nutrition.
Beginning in 2021, the Government of the State of Eritrea has begun to co-finance 20 per cent of the traditional vaccines, demonstrating its long-term commitment to self-reliance and sustainability of the programme.
Additionally, the MoH continues to provide Immunization in Practice (IIP) trainings for the front-line workers to sustain coverage and quality of the programme.
The soon to be introduced Inactivated Polio Vaccination Campaign (IPV) into the routine immunization will help sustain the Polio Free status of Eritrea since 2015.
UNICEF would also like to thank donors like Irish Aid and Government of UK (FCDO) for their continued support to maintain Eritrea’s immunization programme.