5 million children targeted in Zimbabwe's largest measles campaign

European Commission's Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO)

Daniel Dickinson

Manicaland, Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe's largest ever vaccination campaign is underway with up to five million children under the age of fifteen due to be immunized against measles over a ten day period. The measles campaign follows the outbreak of the virus across the country and the deaths of hundreds of children. The US$8 million intervention is being supported by the European Commission.

Dr Torben Bruhn, a regional medical expert for the European Commission has been in Zimbabwe to monitor the progress of the ambitious campaign.

Question: How significant is this measles vaccination campaign?

Torben Bruhn: This is the most ambitious vaccination campaign which has ever taken place in Zimbabwe. Five million children under the age of 15 have been targeted by the Ministry of Health across the country to receive the potentially life-saving immunisation which will protect them for many years to come.

Q: What are the challenges thrown up by such a large campaign?

TB: The logistical challenges are immense. There are over 1500 locations around the country where children will be immunized. All those locations have to be supplied with vaccines. That means maintaining a cold chain, in other words preserving the vaccine by keeping it at a low refrigerated temperature throughout the distribution process right up to the moment when it is injected into the child's arm. Staff, who are mainly from the Ministry of Health also need to be available at the right time in the right place to administer the vaccine, which takes a great deal of planning. And there need to be vehicles and petrol available to transport those staff. As part of the European Commission's US$1.3 million contribution to the campaign, we are funding around 4000 vaccination personnel.

Q: What is your impression from the ground as to how the first days of the campaign have been going?

TB: I travelled to Makoni district in the east of the country, close to the border with Mozambique. The District Nursing Officer there told me they intended to vaccinate up to 115,000 children in towns and rural locations. I visited the district hospital which was receiving a steady stream of young children, mainly under 5s, who had been brought by their parents. Typically, five children would line up on their parent's lap to receive the measles vaccine. This takes less than five minutes and then the next five are called in. So it was quite efficient. I also visited schools where older children were being vaccinated.

Q: Why is the campaign needed now?

TB: Measles outbreaks have been reported across the country and hundreds of children have died as a result of catching the highly contagious virus. Zimbabwe used to have excellent immunisation coverage for measles, exceeding 90% of the population. However, the deterioration of the health system following years of instability and under-investment meant that fewer and fewer children received the measles vaccine. The current campaign is aimed at increasing the immunisation coverage as much as possible.

Q: Will all children in Zimbabwe receive the vaccine?

TB: That is the intention, although there are some cultural difficulties which mean that probably not all children will be covered. In Zimbabwe, there are two religious groups that are very strong whose adherents do not believe in medical care so refuse the vaccination. I visited a rural school in Makoni district, where I was told that children had been kept away from school in order to avoid the vaccination. It is estimated that up to 10% of Zimbabwe's population of 9-11 million people belong to this religious denomination.

Q: How effective is the vaccine?

TB: It is an effective vaccine which works with 85% of those people who receive it. What is more, it offers protection against this potentially fatal virus for a lifetime. This makes it an extremely efficient intervention.