The Liberian Ministry of Health, supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Health Organization, has kicked off a weeklong campaign to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of children against measles and polio. A mass immunization campaign scheduled for last year was suspended due to the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.
The campaign aims to vaccinate more than 683,000 children against polio and 603,000 against measles. The children also will receive deworming medicine.
Vaccinations of children against killer diseases essentially were halted during the Ebola outbreak, leaving hundreds of thousands of children at risk.
World Health Organization Ebola expert Margaret Harris says routine vaccinations should have continued during this period. But, she notes, they were suspended in Liberia and in the other two hard-hit Ebola countries — Guinea and Sierra Leone — because services were overwhelmed.
Additionally, she says parents did not want to bring their children to health centers associated with Ebola, for fear they would contract the disease.
“So, we know that there is now a large cohort of children that have really missed their vaccinations for over a year and… until recently, there were concerns about having any mass vaccination campaigns because there was a general guideline against having mass gatherings. But, a month ago WHO looked at this, looked at the issues involved and laid down guidelines for how you could conduct a mass vaccination campaign safely where you have got transmission of Ebola or concern about the risk of transmission of Ebola,” said Harris.
Measles and polio are highly contagious diseases. However, both are easily preventable as vaccines are effective and inexpensive. U.N. Children’s Fund spokesman Christof Boulierac says aid workers are taking steps to assure parents they have nothing to fear by bringing in their children.
“A major social mobilization effort has been deployed to convince communities of the need to have their children vaccinated in this difficult context and to explain the measures being taken to minimize any risk of infection,” he said.
Country to be declared Ebola free
Liberia is set to be declared free of Ebola on Saturday, May 9 if there are no new confirmed cases of the disease.
But, transmission of the deadly virus continues in neighboring Sierra Leone and Guinea. Therefore, Harris tells VOA that high vigilance must be maintained in the region. She says increased surveillance already has been put in place.
“This has been going on throughout the period, throughout the countdown. Liberia has shown excellent heightened surveillance," she said. "They have been collecting samples from anybody who meets any of the elements of the case definition of Ebola and they have been sending those samples for testing. So, they have been sending hundreds of samples each week for testing and that will be ongoing.”
Harris says the WHO will maintain its current level of staffing in Liberia to make sure that vigilance against another Ebola outbreak is maintained.