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Listen, childhood vaccines are our magic bullet

 The UNICEF Kenya Deputy Representative, Patrizia DiGiovanni gives drops of Polio Vaccine to a child in Eastleigh where over 800,000 children were targeted for the exercise within Nairobi. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

Neema is a joyful, playful and healthy child. I am drawn to her by more than just her character. It is anchored right from a deliberate early healthy start to life strongly supported by parents who took her for the routine childhood vaccinations.

Additionally, there must have been a resilient health system that ensured the critical childhood vaccines were available.

The peers around her also received the life-saving interventions against the vaccine preventable diseases within the recommended schedule.

This has remained true since I first saw her as a child when her parents brought her for the first set of childhood vaccines about four years ago. Whereas the series of routine childhood vaccines ended at 18 months when she received her last booster shot for the measles, today she has grown into a healthy child. 

Kenya marked the 2022 World Immunisation Week this April as a reminder of our roles in enhancing immunisation.

This year’s theme was ‘Long Life for All’ and which sought to unify us around the idea that vaccines make it possible for us to protect our loved ones.

The additional purpose of the World Immunisation Week was to increase demand for immunisation and reinforcing public health messages that promote awareness.

Four decades ago, we would lose thousands of children to measles, pneumonia, diarrhoea and whooping cough. Vaccines against those diseases have reduced mortality due to vaccine-preventable diseases.

These childhood vaccines are our magic bullet.

In Kenya, the most poor children – often most in need of vaccines – are the least likely to get them. With the decentralisation of health, there is a big difference in the routine immunisation coverage especially in arid and semi-arid areas, the informal settlements and among those reluctant to take up vaccines due to religious or cultural reasons.

We cannot give up just yet. We must wear our hearts on our sleeves and keep going strong.

The signposts of our contribution to a healthier and safer society will be indicated by how our concerted commitment to reduce disease and deaths of our children from vaccine-preventable diseases.

Rotary International has been at the centre of the fight to eradicate polio for more than three decades. Rotarians the world over have contributed more than $2.4 billion (Sh240 billion) and countless volunteer hours to eradicate polio. Together with partners like the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Unicef, it has seen more than 400 million children vaccinated annually around the world.

While cases of polio have decreased by more than 99 per cent worldwide since 1988, it has not been without challenges in the final stretch of the eradication effort. The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted efforts to combat vaccine-preventable diseases, including polio.

On August 25, 2020, the WHO African region was officially certified free of wild poliovirus four years after Nigeria – Africa’s last polio-endemic country – recorded its final case of wild polio.

A single case of polio is one too many. Polio has repeatedly shown it is one of the most difficult viruses to eliminate. We need to continually strengthen routine and supplementary immunisation until we eradicate the last polio case globally.

In June 2021, Rotary and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative partners launched a new five-year eradication strategy. The approach outlines new tools and tactics to reach more children with polio vaccines while also strengthening health systems in underserved communities.

Indeed, vaccines save lives, so let us spread the word for our ‘little friends’ like Neema and future generations.

Dr David Githanga is a paediatrician, Vaccine Champion, member of Kenya Paediatrics Association and ex-President, Rotary Club of Nairobi.

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