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Zimbabwe Investigates Adverse Effects from Immunizations

Newborn babies are seen in a government hospital in Harare, July 19, 2011.

Newborn babies are seen in a government hospital in Harare, July 19, 2011.

HARARE — The Zimbabwe government has begun an investigation into reports of severe adverse effects - including deaths - from an immunization program against polio and measles it conducted last month. On Friday, Henry Madzorera, Zimbabwe’s health minister, said the program was important because it cuts down the number of childhood deaths from these diseases.

Zimbabwean Health Minister Henry Madzorera attributed the negative physical reactions some children have to vaccinations to malnutrition, among other factors. He also said the children may already have other diseases when they get vaccinated.

"Zimbabwe has among the highest maternal and child death rates in the world," said Madzorera. "So some events are coincidental due to the high frequency of child deaths, but also child morbidity. However, vaccination remains a key intervention in giving a child a chance of life. But the frequency and magnitude of adverse events becomes higher on these children who are already sick."

In Zimbabwe, vaccination of children has in the past met with resistance from some parents, who say their children became ill after getting the shots.

The June vaccination program sponsored by the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF) and Japan drew attention when a child died in Masvingo, about 300 kilometers south of Harare.

Deputy Health Minister Douglas Mombeshora confirmed the death and suggested other factors, not just the vaccination, may have caused the death.

“The child was severely malnourished," said Mombeshora. "We also discovered that the parents were on ART [AIDS] therapy. The parents had not come to say they are on treatment. That they are on treatment and the low weight on the child [was] mostly likely [because] the child was HIV positive.”

It remains to be seen if skeptical parents will listen to such an explanation and expose their children to immunization programs.

UNICEF procured the immunization drugs after receiving funding from the Japanese government.

Peter Salama, the head of UNICEF in Harare, also says that many children are sick from other diseases when they get vaccinated to prevent measles and polio. He says the vaccines are safe.

"Some of those children are already sick," Salama explained. "They have diarrhea, particularly in winter months, they have respiratory infections. Parents associate vaccination with their illness, so much of these reports turn out to be coincidental. We only procure WHO pre-qualified vaccines. That is the case for Zimbabwe and for other countries in the world. "

The week-long immunization program in June vaccinated against polio and measles and targeted more than two million children. With official figures showing that 100 children die every day in Zimbabwe, the immunization program is seen as the most cost-effective way to reduce child illness and child mortality.

Zimbabwe's healthcare sector fell into complete disorder several years ago, after years of political turmoil and the collapse of the economy. Now, thanks to international agencies such as UNICEF and WHO, there seems to be some recovery.