JUBA: The health minister of war torn South Sudan Riek Gai Kok, has said that at least fifteen children have died from a botched attempt to immunise them in a measles vaccination campaign that saw people as young as 12 years old administering the vaccines. UNICEF and The World Health Organization, WHO, also confirmed this in a joint statement. The children were vaccinated with the same unsterilised syringe, and the vaccine was not stored properly, according to an investigation into the deaths. As a result, the immunisation campaign caused severe infection and sepsis.
The team administering the vaccinations was “neither qualified nor trained” to do so, the health minister said. The measles vaccination campaign is targeting more than 2 million children across the country. About 300 people were vaccinated during the campaign in the Kapoeta region, including 32 other children who fell ill, but survived, Riek Gai Kok added. Children as young as 12 were administering the vaccine to others. The government said all of the children who died were under the age of 5. Riek Gai Kok is setting up a commission to determine who is responsible and whether victims’ families will be compensated.
The UN said the children died of “severe sepsis/toxicity” from the contaminated vaccine, and the Health Ministry blamed the deaths on human error. One syringe was used for all the children during the four-day campaign, and the vaccine was stored without refrigeration the entire time. Sepsis is a potentially deadly immune response triggered by an infection which spreads quickly in the body. It can lead to multiple organ failure and death.
The children died in the rural town of Kapoeta in early May. Another 32 children suffered fever, vomiting and diarrhea but recovered, a joint statement by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN children’s agency UNICEF confirmed.
Abdulmumini Usman, WHO’s country representative in South Sudan, said earlier this week that even after the organization became aware of the deaths, the measles campaign continued across the country except in Kapoeta. “This campaign is lifesaving,” said Usman.
WHO provides some training to South Sudan’s health officials and the UN children’s agency provides the vaccines to the government. It was not immediately clear whether any UN official were present at the time of the botched vaccinations.
The joint statement by WHO and UNICEF said the vaccination team involved in the deaths was “neither qualified nor trained.” It called the deaths a “tragic event.”
Dr. Samson Baba, an immunization official in the Health Ministry, refused to comment on the deaths earlier this week.
South Sudan’s government on Friday also said vaccinations are not being denied to any part of the country, including those held by opposition forces.
Measles is yet another challenge facing the desperately poor East African country that already has been devastated by more than three years of civil war and a recently declared famine, as well as a cholera outbreak. South Sudan declared independence in 2011, but has struggled to maintain basic services – including healthcare – after a civil war erupted in 2013. The United Nations estimates more than one million children have fled the country during the conflict, and a million more are displaced within the country. The civil war has killed tens of thousands and sent more than 1.8 million people fleeing the country, creating the world’s fastest-growing refugee situation.
In 2016, South Sudan had at least 2,294 measles cases and 28 people died, according to UN data. So far this year, at least one person has died and 665 people have been infected. Friday’s UN statement said the risk of measles in the country remains “extremely high.” Measles outbreaks in the country are a key target of the United Nations children’s fund (Unicef), which is aiming to vaccinate 1.2 million children this year.
Immunization is the process whereby a person is made immune or resistant to an infectious disease, typically by the administration of a vaccine. Vaccines stimulate the body’s own immune system to protect the person against subsequent infection or disease.
Immunization is a proven tool for controlling and eliminating life-threatening infectious diseases and is estimated to avert between 2 and 3 million deaths each year. It is one of the most cost-effective health investments, with proven strategies that make it accessible to even the most hard-to-reach and vulnerable populations. It has clearly defined target groups; it can be delivered effectively through outreach activities; and vaccination does not require any major lifestyle change.