Two Decades in the Making
How Attitudes Toward Vaccination Have Changed in Lao PDR
It’s a busy Monday morning at Sikhottabong District Hospital in Vientiane Capital. The noises of young children echo in the hospital hallway as they nervously wait for their routine immunization shots.
Veteran doctor, Chanti Thoumabout interacts with parents while making her early morning rounds. She supervises a team of 11, who run the vaccination programme at the hospital as well as the villages and schools in the Sikhottabong district.
“I have been working on immunization for more than 20 years,” proudly shares Dr. Thoumabout.
Over her two-decade-long career, Dr. Thoumabout has witnessed a significant change in the immunization programme of the country. Limited availability of vaccines, the public’s hesitancy towards them and technological challenges were just a few obstacles they had to overcome.
In the past, the Sikhottabong District Hospital would also not have been busy like it is nowadays. Only two or three parents visited the hospital each day to get their children vaccinated. Now, the hospital receives up to 50 children daily.
“Vaccines build a child’s immunity against various illnesses,” she states.
“Early in my career, it was common to see children with polio and other preventable diseases. But thanks to vaccines, these cases are a rare sight now. We also often had to visit families at home before and convince them to get their children vaccinated. We have come a long way since”
The life-saving power of vaccines has won the trust of the Lao people. Shift in people’s perception is evidently visible across the country. Instead of health workers visiting the houses, parents now visit health centres to ensure their child gets all their necessary vaccination on time. These gains were made with over four decades of relentless hard work across all levels.
“Seeing this positive change in people’s attitudes makes me extremely happy,” says Dr. Thoumabout. This change in attitude was also a big factor in Lao PDR’s successful vaccination campaign against COVID-19.
Winds of Change
30-year-old Lae Xayvong is an example of this positive change. Instead of selling vegetables at her shop, Lae is patiently waiting in the hospital lobby with her a-year-old son, Via, for his vaccination.
Lae hands over a yellow book to Dr. Thoumabout detailing Via’s vaccination record. Dr. Thoumabout meticulously checks the records of the vaccination he has had so far. Today, Via will receive vaccines for Japanese Encephalitis, Measles and Polio.
“I want my son to be healthy. The doctors tell me if my son gets all his routine immunization, he will fall sick less often,” says the 30-year-old mum.
Via was born during the peak of the pandemic in Lao PDR. As regular visits to the hospitals during the pandemic were difficult, Via missed out on a few early doses of routine vaccines. The doctors are now catching up on the missed doses.
Once the shots are done, Dr. Thoumabout gave the next appointment for 10 March 2023 for Via’s next vaccination.
A Return to Pre-Pandemic Levels
“The hospital wants all children to receive the doses they missed out on due to the pandemic,” says Dr. Thoumabout. “We have now put in place a system at our hospital where parents can walk in every Monday, Tuesday and Friday to get their child vaccinated,” she further explained.
The hospital is also running mobile camps in the community to ensure no one is left behind when it comes to vaccination.
The immunization programme in Lao PDR has a long history of achievements and is widely regarded as one of the country’s most successful public health programmes. However, COVID-19 forced many children in Lao PDR, such as Via, to miss out on their routine immunization. Gains made over the decades are in jeopardy as children are being deprived of life-saving vaccines.
Lao PDR is aiming to bring the vaccination rates back to the pre-pandemic levels and beyond, ensuring no child left behind. UNICEF supports the Lao Government with vaccine forecasting, budgeting and procurement, alongside the development of financial transition plans. The cold chain system across the country is also now upgraded. In fact, Sikhottabong District Hospital also recently received a new freezer to store more vaccine vials.
This was possible due to generous support from donors like the Japanese Committee for Vaccine (JCV). In 2022, JCVs financial support enabled UNICEF to procure and distribute a substantial number of vaccines, including 490,000 doses of Bivalent oral polio vaccine (BOPV) vaccine, 360,000 doses of Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine and 163,000 doses of Hepatitis B vaccine. An estimated 147,000 children aged under one year received these vaccines.