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Official confirmation of diphtheria cases in Vanuatu

© UNICEFPacific/2018/Sokhin

Lifesaving vaccines and education to protect families’ health

Port Vila, 8 April 2019: The Ministry of Health today officially confirms two cases of diphtheria in Vanuatu and is working with its partners, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), to take necessary steps for early detection, treatment and protection of families.

The Ministry of Health has seen an increase in vaccine-preventable diseases since January 2019. Recent results from laboratory tests in New Caledonia have confirmed two cases of diphtheria in school children aged 11 and 13 years. Caused by a bacteria, if not treated diphtheria can cause death, especially in children. 

Diphtheria causes swelling of the nose and throat with signs and symptoms that include: difficulty swallowing, sore throat, fever, difficulty breathing, coughing or sneezing, and thick, grey coating, in the nose, throat and tongue. Diphtheria spreads from person-to-person through coughing and sneezing and close physical contact. 

“The Ministry of Health is leading efforts to ensure families are protected against and treated for diphtheria,” stated Len Tarivonda, Director of Public Health. “Weekly coordination meetings with partners ensure we keep on top of this serious disease.”

Preventable by vaccines, a person who has diphtheria is treatable with antibiotics administered by health care professionals in health facilities. Knowing and identifying signs and symptoms early and seeking medical treatment at a health facility is critical and lifesaving.

“We are supporting the government, both technically and financially, in the surveillance, and management of cases of diphtheria to ensure further spread of the disease is halted”, said Dr Jacob Kool, Head of the WHO Vanuatu Country Office. 

The Ministry of Health has set up a working group to strengthen early detection and treatment of suspected cases of diphtheria at all health facilities. This involves refresher trainings of health workers on vaccine preventable disease case definitions and reporting protocols. All mediums are being used for public health education to prevent spread of the disease through community and school awareness programmes. 

The working group is finalising plans for immunisation campaigns targeting specific areas and segments of the population, particularly school children, to protect against diphtheria as part of the national immunisation week (24-30 April).

“Children are the most vulnerable in situations like this. UNICEF is supporting the Government to make sure vaccines and funds are readily available for fast mobilisation of teams to reach children with lifesaving vaccines,” said Sheldon Yett, Representative of the UNICEF Pacific Multi Country Office. 

Public health awareness is a key component of the Ministry’s strategy to combat this disease. Everyone is urged to become familiar with signs and symptoms of diphtheria. 

If there are any concerning changes in a loved one’s health, it is important to go quickly to the nearest health centre.  

About the Vanuatu Ministry of Health

The Vanuatu Ministry of Health is guided by the Vanuatu Health Sector Strategy. The mission of the Ministry of Health is to protect and promote the health of all people in Vanuatu. The values it seeks to uphold are consumer focus, equity, quality, integrity and efficiency. Its vision is for an integrated and decentralised health system that promotes efficient and effective and equitable health services for the good health and general wellbeing of all people in Vanuatu.

About World Health Organisation

WHO’s goal is to build a better, healthier future for people all over the world. WHO staff work side by side with governments and other partners to ensure the highest attainable level of health for all people. For more information about WHO, and its work in the Western Pacific Region, visit 

For more information about vaccines, visit our website here: 


UNICEF promotes the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do.  Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere. For more information about UNICEF and its work for children, visit  Follow UNICEF on Twitter and Facebook

For more information, please contact:

Len Tarivonda, Department of Health, +678 710 5616, 

Dr. Philippe Guyant, WHO Country Office, +678 27683,

Rebecca Olul, UNICEF Vanuatu Field Office, +678 776 6604, 



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