By Dr. Lebrun Kembo and Nico D’Auterive
As demonstrated by the WHO/UNICEF Estimates of National Immunization Coverage released in July 2022, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on global childhood immunization rates. First dose measles coverage dropped to 81 per cent in 2021, the lowest level since 2008. Reasons for this decrease range from interruptions in vaccination campaigns and other healthcare services during the pandemic to increased vaccine hesitancy.
Faced with such monumental challenges, only 24 countries achieved higher immunization coverage in 2021 than in 2019. One of these countries is Gabon. As in most places around the world, 2020 proved to be a difficult year for Gabon’s healthcare sector, and the national measles immunization rate dropped from 62% in 2019 to just 53% in 2020. However, with the support of partners, Gabon was able to regain its pre-pandemic progress, plus some, accomplishing a measles immunization rate of 64% in 2021.
Starting in October 2021, the Gabonese government organized intensified vaccination activities (IVAs) for children aged 0 to 11 months, in coordination with the national COVID-19 vaccination campaign. With a grant from Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF), UNICEF purchased cold supply chain equipment to cover the needs of 51 health departments in Gabon. With this equipment, the 2021 IVAs were able to reach more than 11,000 children — 62% of the children targeted for vaccination. Another measles campaign was conducted in April 2022, which covered more than 50% of the target group.
One of the IVA locations was the Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Center in the city of Port-Gentil, which offers child vaccination services, pre- and post-natal consultations, nutritional monitoring of children, and pediatric curative care. Like many other IVA centers, the MCH Center reported that parents were afraid to bring their children due to false rumors that the children would be given the COVID-19 vaccine, rather than just routine immunizations.
At the MCH Center in Port-Gentil, Cedric Kwaou, a 44-year-old oil industry worker, explained that he understood the importance of bringing his son to get his scheduled childhood vaccinations despite the rumors.
“I realized – and made sure my family realized – that diseases such as polio, measles, yellow fever, diphtheria, meningitis and tetanus were killing our children even though they could be prevented thanks to vaccination,” said Kwaou.
Kwaou’s mother-in-law objected to the vaccinations, but he discussed it with his wife, Ngomba Kengue, and convinced her it was the best thing to do for their son. On the day of the scheduled vaccination, Kengue had to work at the local market, so Kwaou accompanied their son to the MCH Center.
It was the family’s first visit to the MCH Center, as they previously lived far away and attended the hospital in Tchengue instead. Kwaou promised they would return to the MCH Center for the next vaccination appointment.
According to Kwaou, many of children had died in his community because they were unvaccinated, even though vaccines to protect children are available free of charge. Now Kwaou encourages members of his community to bring their children to vaccination sites during immunization campaigns.
Kwaou’s resolve to ensure his child did not miss a single vaccine dose sets a strong example for other fathers, who traditionally are not as involved as mothers in their child’s routine healthcare in many countries. It is also a reminder to healthcare officials of the importance of providing proper information and carrying out multi-directional awareness-raising initiatives for guardians and other family and community members. This will maintain a lasting dialogue and develop a spirit of active listening and respectful cooperation, while ensuring that messages are properly understood by all.
The IVA Center supported by LCIF and other partners at the MCH Center in Port-Gentil is just one part of a greater nationwide investment in immunization that is saving lives and helping to overcome the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on routine and preventative health care services.