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Measles outbreak possible as SA’s vaccination remains low — Health department warns

02 May 2022 - 09:00
Parents and caregivers have been urged to ensure their children are up-to-date with their vaccinations. File photo.
Parents and caregivers have been urged to ensure their children are up-to-date with their vaccinations. File photo.
Image: REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

The national department of health has warned of a possible measles outbreak, cautioning the risk remains high following decreased uptake of childhood vaccination during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Department spokesperson Foster Mohale called on parents and caregivers to ensure their children are up-to-date with their vaccinations to minimise the complications of this infectious disease.

This follows the latest report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) which revealed Africa is experiencing a surge in outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases over the past year.

The WHO noted about 17,500 cases of measles had been recorded in the region between January and March this year, marking a 400% increase compared with the same period in 2021. According to the world body, about 20 African countries have reported measles outbreaks in the first quarter of this year — eight more than in the first three months of 2021.

“Outbreaks of other vaccine-preventable diseases have also become more common. At least 24 countries confirmed outbreaks of a variant of polio in 2021, which is four more than in 2020.”

The WHO said in 2021, 13 countries reported yellow fever outbreaks in the African region, compared to nine in 2020 and three in 2019. Inequalities in accessing vaccines, disruptions by the Covid-19 pandemic, including a huge strain on health system capacities, impaired routine immunisation services in many African countries and forced the suspension of vaccination drives.

Regional head of WHO Dr Matshidiso Moeti said the rise in outbreaks of other vaccine-preventable diseases is a “warning sign” the continent should not ignore.  

“As Africa works hard to defeat Covid-19, we must not forget other health threats. Health systems could be severely strained not only by Covid-19 but by other diseases. Vaccines are at the heart of a successful public health response, and as countries restore services, routine immunisation must be at the core of revived and resilient health systems.”

The WHO said in 2019 only six African countries attained 95% coverage with first dose measles vaccination, and in 2020 only three met this target.

A media roundtable held by Pfizer last week to mark world immunisation week heard there is an urgent need to address the decline in childhood vaccination rates to avoid diseases such as measles, diarrhoea, diptheria, tetanus, hepatitis B, meningitis and pneumonia.

Speaker Dr Victor Ramathesele said since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic SA has witnessed a 21% drop in routine vaccination rates, including diseases such as whooping cough and polio, which had been nearly eliminated for years.

On Sunday Mohale said while SA has not detected any outbreaks in measles yet, immunisation dropped during the lockdown.

“All districts implemented catch up campaigns and rates quickly returned to pre-pandemic levels. However ,these levels are lower than they should be and as a result the risk of measles outbreaks remains. This is being carefully monitored,” he said.

“All parents and caregivers are encouraged to ensure their children have received all the necessary vaccines, which includes two doses of measles vaccine at six and 12 months.”

Western Cape health department deputy director of child health Sonia Botha said the province’s immunisation teams had been proactive to put in place catch-up campaigns and community vaccination drives during the pandemic years, “which is why the Western Cape does not reflect a decline, as may be experienced in other provinces”.

The province achieved 85.2% coverage for immunisation of children under the age of one year  in 2019/20, 82.9% for 2020/2021 and 83.1% in 2021/22.

Botha said during the Covid-19 pandemic some caregivers expressed hesitancy to visit health facilities and face the possibility of being exposed to communicable diseases. Additional measures to make vaccination more accessible in the Western Cape include appointment systems which decrease waiting times and public-private partnerships that provide vaccination on an appointment basis or after hours.

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