Vaccination program in Kenya raises concerns over safety

Written by By Staff Writer, Tobi Elkin, CNN

Vaccines can protect people from communicable diseases, but a mandate to all schools in Kenya to offer them to students has raised questions about their safety and efficacy.

The provision has come under fire from critics who say the vaccine could “kill off entire classes” of young children. Kenyan media have also reported that some mothers in Gatundu North are refusing to have their children vaccinated.

“The vaccines are very good; they can help stop diseases like pneumonia,” said Evaristus Musheza, who works in a community health center in Nairobi, but who hasn’t yet been vaccinated. “It is just a matter of who is willing to invest in getting them.”

The vaccination program , introduced in April, requires students to get a booster shot before registration, but parents can opt out of the routine vaccinations.

“Do I want my children to sit next to a child who has gotten three doses, or do I want to sit next to someone who has never been vaccinated? It is because some people have no conscience,” said Jasminda Masako, who has a son in the Gatundu North district.

‘Clumsy, expensive, incompetent’

Margaret Muyoka, founder of the advocacy group Kenya Vaccines Access Foundation, said her organization has been tracking the uptake of vaccine coverage within Gatundu North and Nairobi.

“The uptake is not very high in Gatundu North; it is some 2.7%. The uptake in Nairobi is 78%. That is very low. It is very easy to see that this program is not working. It’s incompetent and it’s clumsy,” she said.

Muyoka added that vaccination rates are 20% lower in communities where children receive free free meals, suggesting the pediatrician who was given permission to offer the vaccine does not recommend it.

Like many other developing countries, Kenya subsidizes vaccines for low-income families to help combat the high cost of health care and reduced capacity to prepare for vaccine shortages. Muyoka said the program was “astronomical,” adding that Kenya also supports child health facilities which don’t have time to carry out epidemiological surveillance and follow-up on vaccines if they give them out only once per year, as is the case in Gatundu North.

Muyoka said Kenyans should not be mandated to vaccinate their children or lose out on free meals, because of financial constraints.

“Do I want to be ignorant of the fact that my children may or may not catch typhoid, because I have not invested in vaccinating them or in cooking them a nutritious meal?” she said.

Kenya Immunization Program Director Julius Mwangi said the vaccination mandate was intended to save children’s lives and keep more than 1.5 million of them out of hospital each year.

“I am aware that there are some parents who are holding on to their child because they are not happy and I say to them I am sorry, but that child should go back to school; your child is safe because the vaccination is being done and the vaccines are only available in a safe place,” he said.

According to the World Health Organization, deaths caused by diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea and measles remain low in the world — around 250,000, according to data from 2010.

Much of this is because people choose to get vaccinated, said Chris Beyrer, CEO of the Global Vaccine Action Campaign.

“We believe that vaccination saves lives and leads to healthier lives,” he said. “And … vaccines are cheap. If more countries start to implement them at scale, we’re going to be able to save an enormous number of lives.

“But certainly in Kenya, we have a long way to go in terms of policy making and implementation. We have a long way to go on surveillance of these vaccines,” he added.

Kenya will make up 6.5% of the global total needed for the majority of the world’s children to be vaccinated by the end of this year, according to the Global Initiative to Accelerate Preparedness for Infectious Diseases, which represents governments and vaccine suppliers.

Tobi Elkin reported from New York.

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