Annually, the last week of April is World Immunization Week, focusing on promoting the importance of vaccines and immunization. This year, it is from the 24th until the 30th of April.
In a South African context, it is essential to think about the aim of the week concerning the most vulnerable members of our communities.
According to Dr Victor Ramathesele, “the most vulnerable populations are the young, the old and people who don’t have access to medical facilities.” The latter are in the most rural parts of the country where health facilities are remote and access is an issue.
Dr Ramathesele spoke at the World Immunization Week media roundtable hosted by Pfizer South Africa. He alluded to the progress the government has made toward vaccine healthcare for all. The roundtable’s aim was to address the dropping rates of routine vaccination amid the pandemic. It also emphasized the importance of immunization to avoid vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, rotavirus disease, diarrhoea, diptheria, tetanus, hepatitis B, meningitis and pneumonia, as well as the re-emergence of smallpox and polio, among others in South Africa.
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According to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, at-risk populations in SA include those who live in
- remote areas that are difficult to access as they are in deep rural, mountainous areas with poor or no roads and have isolated communities
- in the inner-city slums, informal settlements, nomads and high mobility groups
- on the farm as the farmers may not release workers to take children for routine health services
- in provinces bordering neighbouring countries.
So how does the SA government continue to ensure that children in these communities are served?
“Specifically to vaccines, rural communities pose a big challenge, especially when it comes to something like the cold chain. A lot of the vaccines have to be transported in very strict conditions, and if those conditions are broken, the vaccine no longer works,” Dr. Ramathesele says.
Schools played a key role in the eradication of polio in SA. The country has not reported a case of wild type poliovirus since 1989. The vaccine was administered by qualified healthcare workers in schools. This helped ensure that the department of health can access large quantities of children at the same time.
Currently, the polio vaccine is still part of the routine childhood vaccination programme through the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI-SA).
At birth, parents are given a vaccination card and need to ensure that the schedule is adhered to. Unfortunately, not every child has a vaccination card, with parents in some communities reporting that they need to pay for their vaccination cards.
Parents in rural communities such as Umzinyathi in the KwaZulu-Natal province report never receiving a vaccination card.
These circumstances pose a real challenge to the immunization journey.
Where cards are available, Community Healthcare Workers play a key role in ensuring that children’s vaccinations are up to date. “Community healthcare workers are a big resource in rural communities,” Dr Ramathesele adds.
Community members are encouraged to engage with community workers who are trained to bridge the healthcare services gap. Progress has been made by the government. According to President Cyril Ramaphosa, “in democratic South Africa, health care is no longer the privilege of a few, but available to all.”
More efforts should continue being made towards ensuring that children are protected from diseases.