Vaccines for a healthier Africa

Mass immunisation campaigns in Kenya
have helped to halve measles deaths in
sub-Saharan Africa since 1999.
(Image: Unicef)

Janine Erasmus

The Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IIDMM) at the University of Cape Town has launched Vaccines for Africa, an immunisation advocacy programme. The programme’s mission is to work towards a continent free of vaccine-preventable bacterial and viral diseases such as tuberculosis, meningitis, pneumonia, and diarrhoeal disease caused by the rotavirus.

The initiative is the brainchild of Professor Gregory Hussey, director of the IIDMM as well as the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (Satvi). Renowned paediatric infectious diseases specialist Hussey also serves on the World Health Organisation’s global advisory committee on vaccine safety.

Hussey is firmly of the opinion that immunisation, with both new and established vaccines, is the key to beating highly communicable and deadly diseases in Africa. He maintains that Vaccines for Africa’s (Vacfa) vision will be more efficiently realised through a co-ordinated effort across the continent, with a focus on greater access to information.

“Africa lags behind other continents in the uptake of life-saving vaccines,” writes Hussey on the Satvi website, “even though vaccine-preventable diseases are causing avoidable deaths in Africa.”

Vacfa also works to advance the United Nations’ fourth Millennium Development Goal, which stipulates a two-thirds reduction of mortality in children under five by 2015.

Driving force

With the support of a number of individual and corporate partners, the Vacfa website went live at the end of March 2009. It aims to be a driving force behind vaccination awareness, fostering a lively exchange of current, accurate, and empirical information applicable to Africa.

The site provides comprehensive information for health professionals, researchers, policymakers, parents and the public at large regarding immunisation practice and vaccine development.

Health practitioners can furnish themselves with the latest developments regarding vaccine-preventable diseases and their corresponding vaccines. Parents can read about common childhood diseases, their causes and symptoms, treatment, and prevention by immunisation.

The site also provides links to relevant organisations and vaccine initiatives, pharmaceutical companies, and published scientific papers. Finally, there is a discussion forum for the sharing of ideas.

Good information practice

The Vacfa website is currently under evaluation for good information practice by the World Health Organisation, which demands compliance in four categories, namely credibility, content, accessibility and design. Websites that meet the standard are admitted to the Vaccine Safety Net, a network of sites providing information on vaccine safety.

According to the world health body, inaccurate and unbalanced information can lead to unwarranted fear among the public, and the unnecessary proliferation of rumours. This is especially dangerous in the health sector, as lives may be at stake.

Preventing child deaths

Vacfa’s site is initially focusing on the rotavirus, which causes serious diarrhoea and dehydration in children around the world and is responsible for the deaths of over 500 African children every day. It is so widespread that every child on earth will have contracted a rotavirus infection before the age of five, says the World Health Organisation.

The virus is transmitted mainly through close contact, but can also spread through contaminated water or food sources and possibly via the air, as it has been found in the respiratory tracts of infected children. Outbreaks in facilities harbouring vulnerable patients, such as daycare centres and nursing homes, are common.

The good news is that rotavirus is almost completely preventable with the orally-administered vaccine, which is estimated to be up to 98% effective against severe rotavirus disease.

According to Hussey, the choice of rotavirus was based on the fact that many African countries now include the rotavirus vaccine and others such as hepatitis B in their national expanded programme on immunisation. This is a schedule set out by the World Health Organisation for vaccination against common infectious diseases such as measles, polio, whooping cough, diphtheria and tuberculosis.

The United Nations Children’s Fund reports that the programme has been a resounding success. At least 20-million lives have been saved in the past 20 years, and nearly 80% of the world’s children now receive the life-saving vaccines. However, there are still 27-million children who do not have access to routine vaccination.

Expert advisers

An advisory board of immunisation and vaccine experts from across Africa will share their combined expertise and knowledge on the Vacfa site, and will also guide its development and expansion.

The board is made up of 12 members from nine sub-Saharan countries. All are experts in their respective vaccine-related fields and are drawn from the academic and research community as well as medical practice. Three hail from South Africa, two from Uganda, and one each from Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Malawi, Ethiopia, Gambia, Senegal, and Ghana.

Together they represent the interests of millions of Africans, especially children, who still succumb every year to diseases that are easily preventable.

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