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New Vaccine to Combat Infant Mortality in Kenya

  • Michael Onyiego

Children play near a punctured water pipe in Nairobi's Kibera slums (File Photo)

Children play near a punctured water pipe in Nairobi's Kibera slums (File Photo)

A coalition of non-governmental organizations has partnered with the Kenyan government to tackle the leading cause of infant mortality in the east African Nation.

As Kenya strives to meet the Millennium Development Goals, one of the largest battles facing the east African nation is infant mortality. According to the United Nations Children's Fund, Kenya ranked 21st worldwide in infant mortality for 2008, with 128 deaths for every 1,000 children under five - nearly double the worldwide average, 65.

But on Monday Kenya, with help from a coalition of international NGO's, has introduced free access to a new vaccine that will help target the leading cause of infant death in Kenya - pneumonia. Most children’s health initiatives target more publicized killers, such as AIDS, malaria and measles. But, as Kenyan Director of Public Health and Sanitation Shahnaz Kassam Sharif explains, pneumonia is actually responsible for more deaths in children under five than all three combined.

"Pneumococcal disease is responsible for around 30,000 deaths in a year in children under five in Kenya," said Sharif. "Most of those deaths occur in children less than two years of age. In fact, a majority of them occur in children less than one. It is the leading contributor to infant mortality rate in Kenya."

A vaccine to combat pneumococcus, which triggers pneumonia and meningitis, was first introduced in the United States in 2001. But the initial vaccine targeted only a small fraction of the 90 strains of pneumococcus, those most common in developed nations. This new version of the vaccine targets strains more prevalent in developing nations and can protect against more than 70 percent of the cases seen in Africa.

Through this new Kenyan initiative the vaccine, which costs nearly $200 per child, will be administered free of charge to children under one year old by Kenya’s public health sector.

According to World Health Organization country Director Abdoulie Jack, the introduction of the vaccine could mark a turning point in the fight against infant mortality.

"Today is a very important day for Kenya and for the world," said Jack. "Here today we are marking the merging of a problem with the availability of tool, an intervention tool which can make a big difference in the lives of the children here and elsewhere."

Kenya is the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to publicly administer the pneumococcal vaccine, but it is one of many 19 nations, worldwide, to receive the treatment as part of a multi-billion dollar initiative launched by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. The alliance consists of international organizations such the World Bank and the WHO as well as NGO's, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative. GAVI is trying to raise money to fund vaccinations in 40 countries by the year 2015. Through the support of the alliance, Kenya has received around $40 million to combat pneumococcal disease in the next five years.