Uganda vaccinated more than 1 million children beyond its target set for the mass vaccination campaign against measles, rubella, and polio that launched in October.
The campaign, organized by Uganda’s Ministry of Health alongside the World Health Organization (WHO), planned to vaccinate more than 18 million children, and registered more than 19.4 million vaccinations in its week-long program. No deaths or severe effects were noted following vaccinations, according to government spokesperson Emmanuel Ainebyoona.
Uganda has seen measles outbreaks in various parts of the country. In October alone, 26 districts had outbreaks of measles, according to Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng, Uganda’s minister of health.
Over the last three years, there have been: 300,000 suspected cases of measles, 46,000 patients admitted with symptoms of measles-rubella disease, and 586 related deaths in the country, according to the government.
But since finishing the vaccination campaign, the government now notes a 71% reduction in the number of weekly suspected measles cases — from 733 suspected cases in a week in April, compared to 212 suspected cases in a week in November, following the vaccinations.
“By and large we were able to register beyond our target, so it shows [the campaign] was successful,” Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the senior public relations officer at the Ministry of Health, told Global Citizen in Kampala.
Ainebyoona says this is due to their preparation, which began in April, five months prior to the vaccinations. Ahead of the campaign, the ministry rolled out messages on TV, on the radio, in print media, and on social media about the importance of vaccinating children. It also mobilized key players like teachers, district officials, and health workers.
Having underestimated the number of vaccinations needed, the government ran low of their supply in several districts, according to Ainebyoona, who says logistics and the movement of vaccines was a challenge. As a result, the country’s army was enlisted to deliver vaccines in areas that experienced shortages.
Misinformation regarding the vaccines was also another challenge, according to Ainebyoona.
Messages linking the vaccine to autism circulated widely on social media, prompting the Ministry of Health and the WHO in Uganda to issue a joint statement calling these allegations “false, unfounded, and baseless.”
“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,” the statement reads.
This has become a global problem, as there have been multiple measles outbreaks over the last year in countries including New Zealand, Italy, and the US, due to the anti-vaccine movement. Recently, Samoa introduced a mandatory mass vaccination campaign, and the WHO listed vaccine hesitancy as a top 10 global health threat in 2019, saying the reasons are complex, but that “some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence.”
Ainebyoona says the misinformation in Uganda was “to an extent that we had to build population confidence by the minister of health having her own daughter immunized at one of the city schools in Kampala.”
Minister Aceng posted photos on social media that showed her accompanying her daughter to receive the vaccination.
“This helped build confidence amongst the parents who have been led by anti-vaccination groups,” Ainebyoona explained.
He also says the ministry reached out to groups in Uganda including the Abajiri, a religious sect commonly known as 666, who are anti-vaccine. He says through the ministry’s outreach, members of the group were persuaded to vaccinate their children.
Still, not everyone was convinced. In Kamuli, an eastern district in the country, five people were arrested by police in October for allegedly hiding their children during the vaccination campaign.
Uganda’s 2017 Immunization Act requires compulsory immunisation of children, women of reproductive age, and other target groups against vaccine-preventable diseases.