The five-day immunization campaign ends on Saturday [30 October]. It‘s free of charge but is not intended for all Cameroonians.
The government says it only has a limited amount of the vaccine from the WHO and is targeting population segments with the highest risks of contracting the H1N1 virus.
Dr. Robinson Mbu is director of family health at the Ministry of Health says the available 1.3 million doses of the vaccine are destined for children aged 5 to 15 years, people above 65, women in at least the fourth month of pregnancy, health workers and people with chronic ailments like diabetes, high blood pressure, sickle cell and HIV.
The nationwide vaccination effort follows a government announcement in October that 75 cases of H1N1 had been detected. The Ministry of Health says no deaths have been recorded. A swine flu pandemic killed tens of thousands across the world last year.
H1N1 is a contagious respiratory virus containing a combination of different influenza viruses endemic in pigs. Scientists say transmission from animals to humans is not common. They say it is not contracted by eating properly cooked pork, although people who often come in contact with swine may be more exposed to the virus.
It is spread among people when infected persons cough, sneeze or speak. People can also get infected by touching contaminated surfaces and objects. Within a day, they may be contagious, even before they begin to exhibit symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, chills and fatigue. Health care practitioners say the resemblance to flu makes early detection a problem and can facilitate its rapid spread.
Last May, 35 African countries formally notified the WHO of a combined total of 18,500 confirmed cases of the flu and a death toll of 168. South Africa alone accounted for more than two-thirds of the cases.
As a preventive measure; Cameroon inoculated a thousand supporters of its soccer team travelling to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. But the effort was not enough to prevent infections.
The renewed effort to eradicate the disease is being carried out by hundreds of health workers at public hospitals across the country. Others are going house-to-house and school-to-school to ensure its success amid concerns that pockets of resistance may emerge.
Previous vaccination campaigns for other diseases have met with resistance, especially from some religious groups that suspect a veiled scheme by the West to render parts of the population sterile.
But Dr. Tsafack Rose Ernestine, a vaccination team leader in Cameroon’s largest city, Douala, says the claims are unfounded.
She says she is counting on journalists to deflect such myths. In principle, the campaign should end on October 30 but will be extended if resistance emerges. She says about 65 million people around the world have received the vaccine and are not complaining of sterility.
The vaccine being administered in Cameroon is branded Paneza and is made in Spain. Health care practitioners say it provides immunity for between 9 and 12 months. They say its only known side effect is mild dizziness. But they warn that persons allergic to eggs should avoid getting the shot because some batches are made from them. In those who are allergic, the vaccine can provoke Guillain-Barre, a rare syndrome that can cause nervous and muscle disorders.
Local traditional rulers are joining the effort to inform the public about the vaccine. A Douala canton chief, HM Essaka Ekwalla, is calling on his subjects to ignore the skeptics and rush to be vaccinated.
He says there is nothing to lose because the vaccine is free and causes no pain. He says elderly people like himself will benefit immensely from getting vaccinated because if they are infected with the virus, it will become hard to breathe, and they could die. The vaccine, says the traditional rulers, is insurance against premature death.
Meantime, the government has been applauding the WHO and its partners for making available the vaccine at no cost. Health Minister Andre Mama Fouda says poor countries like Cameroon could not afford to fund mass inoculations on their own.