An effort to protect children in South Sudan turned tragic and ended up killing 15.
South Sudan is a nation that doesn’t need more tragedy, death, and destruction. Since 1956 the country has only known ten-years of peace. Lack of basic infrastructure and displacement has led to over 2 million people dead and another 4 million who are internally displaced as a result of the nation’s continuing civil war.
The 15 children, all under 5, died of sepsis and toxicity from a botched vaccination campaign. The news was delivered in a joint statement from UNICEF and the World Health Organization.
An unstable electrical grid and untrained personnel combined for the tragedy. The deaths were traced back to a vaccine which had gone unrefrigerated. Also, one syringe was reused for four days.
The campaign, happening in May 2017, in Kapoeta was part of an attempt by the South Sudanese health ministry to vaccinate over 2 million children against measles.
William Moss, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, pointed to South Sudan’s civil war and three-year-long famine as a contributing cause. The pair of catastrophes interfered with the complex logistics. “That’s not an excuse,” said Moss, “but it does provide some context.”
Moss pointed out that untrained people were giving the vaccinations. The measles vaccine, for example, must be diluted and the medical staff was reusing the same syringe for multiple shots. If the vial gets contaminated with bacteria or a toxin and then is injected, the child dies.
Some reports claim children under 13-years-old were administering the vaccine. Moss says polio vaccines, when delivered orally, can be done by trained laymen, but never children.
In 2016 there were almost 2,300 suspected measles cases, and some observers feel there was pressure to rush the measles vaccination campaign. In South Sudan where the population is undernourished and a bare minimum of access to health care services, a measles outbreak can be decimating. An urgent need to vaccinate the population is created, but where the village where the children died, there was improper staffing.
Moss is concerned that the incident may slow down similar global campaigns. “When an event like this occurs, there’s concern this will decrease the willingness of parents to have their children vaccinated.
The organizations involved in the campaign are working to ensure that everyone administering the measles vaccine is trained and qualified. The government is coordinating with regional leaders to make sure this tragedy isn’t repeated.
The Red Cross is engaging with community leaders to highlight the value of measles vaccines, especially in the high-risk areas.
The anti-vaccine movement is complex, but the argument against vaccines is not based on the types of situations in South Sudan. Different issues are raised, but no one is speaking of the possibility of a vaccine vial becoming contaminated with toxins.