Uganda is immunizing over 18 million children against measles and rubella through a five-day campaign, which launched on Wednesday.
The campaign, organized by several partners including the country’s ministry of health and the World Health Organization (WHO), will cover 43% of the country’s population. In addition, the measles-rubella vaccine will now be added to Uganda’s routine immunization schedule.
Among the planned vaccinations, over 8 million will be babies under 9 months, who will also receive the oral polio vaccine. The campaign targets children under 15 years of age — whether they have been previously immunized or not — and immunizations are taking place in schools and community spaces.
In a statement, the WHO in Uganda said the campaign “is particularly important because of the declining trend in routine immunization coverage in the country.”
Over the last three years, Uganda has seen measles outbreaks across the country. Currently, 26 districts in the country have an outbreak of measles, according to Uganda’s health minister, Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng.
She further noted that in Mulago, a north-central area in Kampala, “We are seeing several babies born with holes in the heart and brain damage caused by rubella. Let this not be your child or grandchild. Please ensure that your child is immunised,” she urged.
According to the WHO, measles can result in serious complications including blindness, brain swelling, severe diarrhea, and respiratory infections such as pneumonia.
Media reports show there has been opposition to the vaccination, with some people refusing to immunize their children. In Kamuli, an eastern district in the country, five people were arrested by police for allegedly hiding their children during the vaccination campaign. It is speculated that the residents belong to a religious cult that opposes vaccines.
In addition, messages linking the vaccine to autism have circulated widely on social media. The ministry of health along with the WHO in Uganda issued a joint statement calling these allegations “false, unfounded, and baseless.”
The statement reads: “Some people have had concerns that Autism Spectrum Disorder might be linked to the vaccines children receive, but several studies have shown that there is no link between receiving vaccines and developing autism.”
Yonas Tegegn Woldemariam, the WHO’s representative to Uganda, said the vaccine is backed by years of scientific research: “I can assure you this vaccine is 100% safe and effective.”
Aceng also took to Twitter to dispel misconceptions.
“The vaccines are safe. Some children may experience fever and pain at the injection site. That is all,” she said.
Between 2000 and 2017, measles vaccinations have resulted in an 80% decline in deaths due to the infection. Even still, in 2017, there were 110,000 measles deaths globally, according to the WHO. There have been multiple measles outbreaks this year in countries including New Zealand, Italy, and the US.