Vaccines save children's lives

One of the greatest public health achievements of the past century is still protecting children

Grace Zira, John Biar and Lisa Lynn Hill
A child being immunized
UNICEFSouthSudan/Zira
31 August 2020

“The loss of my third born child was heartbreaking and I couldn’t bear the pain. I regretted for not having taken my child for vaccination,” whispered Atong. She said that many parents have misinformation and are fearful about vaccination side effects and they are unknowingly subjecting their children to deadly vaccine-preventable diseases. “Given the horrible situation that I went through, I decided to always encourage my neighbors and relatives to take their children for vaccination.”

Immunization is one of the greatest public health achievements of the past century. “With the exception of safe water, no other modality, not even antibiotics, has had such a major effect on mortality reduction,” internationally renowned vaccine expert, Dr. Paul Offit, once said. Unfortunately, many families in South Sudan are still affected by vaccine-preventable diseases due to low immunization coverage. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the measles immunizations campaigns took a back seat; however, the risk of children dying from measles transmission will increase if efforts do not resume. South Sudan is still battling an unprecedented outbreak of measles which started early in 2019. Numerous local outbreaks are recorded all over the country, including a recent one in Northern Bhar el-Ghazal state.

A lady with a young boy
UNICEFSouthSudan/Zira
Atong Ngong Deng at the vaccination post at Malualkon Hospital with her five-year-old daughter.

In a swift response on 22 June 2020, a measles vaccination follow-up campaign kicked off in Aweil East county. When an outbreak occurs, a life-saving measles vaccination is recommended for most children from 6 months to 15 years old.  This campaign was conducted by the Ministry of Health with support from GAVI, UNICEF, WHO and some other partners.

On a sunny afternoon, Atong Ngong Deng walked to the vaccination post at Malualkon Hospital with her five-year-old daughter to receive a measles vaccination jab in the arm. Atong, who is very conscious about importance of vaccinations, traveled a difficult 15 kilometers to get her daughter from the grandparents to ensure she was taken to be immunized.

Atong is a 34-year-old mother of six children and resides in Malualkon, Baac payam of Aweil East county. “I took my first two children for immunization and none of them contracted vaccine-preventable diseases,” said Atong. However, she reported that she didn’t take her third child for vaccination because of fear. She heard a rumor that there were adverse side effects. She noticed her children used to cry and developed fevers after receiving an injection and that’s why she stopped immunizing her children. Unfortunately, she had a very painful experience ten years ago. “My child developed fever, red eyes, and rashes. I didn’t take my child to the hospital since I used a traditional treatment by covering the child with a blanket and giving her some traditional medicinal concoctions,” Atong reflected.

“Her condition worsened, and I eventually decided to take her to hospital, but it was too late to save her life. Sadly, my child succumbed to this disease called Ajuek.” In Dinka language, “Ajuek” means measles.

She received information about the current measles vaccination campaign from community mobilizers who visited her home to raise awareness on the importance of immunization. “I also heard information about the campaign through megaphone announcements, as well as on the community radio, Weer Bei FM,” said Atong. She adds that she also benefited a lot from the community mobilizers who explained how to protect her family from COVID-19.

UNICEF supports the Integrated Community Mobilizers Network (ICMN) to create awareness of and demand for immunization and antenatal care services. The mobilizers also provide information on nutrition, malaria prevention strategies, hygiene, sanitation and diarrheal disease prevention. Through ICMN awareness raising, people are in a position to make informed decisions about their health and lives, and that results in a healthier population. 

A child must be taken for routine vaccinations at least 5 times before reaching 1 year old to be fully immunized with different antigens, according to the South Sudan immunization schedule. During pregnancies, women should go for antenatal care services where they get vaccinated with a Tetanus shot.

Lastly, Atong has a strong message for all the parents and care givers. Let us all learn from her grave mistake. “Vaccination saves lives! Take every child for vaccination against all the vaccine-preventable diseases to protect them and prevent death.”

 

UNICEF's immunization efforts are generously supported by GAVI- the vaccine alliance and the German Development Bank