Rwanda's pneumococcal vaccine roll-out, one year on

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San Nkurunziza of UNICEF visits a Rwandan health centre to check on progress in the fight against Africa's number one child killer

Nyamata, Rwanda, 27 September 2010 - It has been a little over a year since Rwanda introduced a pneumococcal conjugate vaccine known as PCV7. The vaccine protects children against one of the most common causes of pneumonia - with encouraging results.

In Nyamata, located in Rwanda's Bugesera district about an hour from the capital city of Kigali, both residents and health workers admit that a significant change has taken place.

Positive impact

"The rate of hospitalisation for pneumonia amongst infants has declined," said Dr. Dariya Mukamusoni, the director of Nyamata's hospital, adding however that as the vaccine was introduced just one year ago its full impact "is still difficult to evaluate."

Dr. Mukamusoni said that while administration of the vaccine is a very important factor in the reduction of pneumonia and its associated complications, equally important is community health education. This strategy goes hand-in-hand with the new vaccine, helping parents to understand the importance of immunisation.

She stressed that the more educated parents are, the less likely is it that their children will contract pneumonia.

Rwanda introduced PCV7 in April 2009 with support from UNICEF and GAVI as well as a generous donation from Wyeth Corporation. UNICEF, GAVI and other partners work with the Rwandan Ministry of Health to strengthen systems for child health delivery.

This, in turn, has enabled Rwanda to be amongst the first developing countries to benefit from PCV7.

Health education on the ground

On a typical immunisation day at Nyamata health centre, hundreds of parents turn up to have their children immunised and hear from nurses and community health workers about a variety of topics, including breastfeeding, nutrition and family planning.

"I understand that the good growth and development of a child is a collective responsibility of both parents," said Jean Pierre Rwigamba, who arrived at the centre with his four-month-old son, Kecy. He was responsible for taking Kecy for his immunizations, he said, because his wife was busy that day.

A driver by profession, Rwigamba is keen to see Rwanda benefit from the new pneumococcal vaccine. He feels certain that if other developing countries follow suit future generations will benefit around the world.

Unnecessary killer

Available statistics indicate that pneumonia claims nearly two million children under the age of five each year - more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Projections show that if all other countries followed suit, millions of child deaths could be prevented in the next 20 years.

GAVI spokesperson Doune Porter explained that it was important to let wealthy countries know about the staggering numbers of needless child deaths to pneumonia each year.

Number one killer of children

"Most people in the western world think that pneumonia only kills old people," she said. "Yet in Africa, it's the number one killer of children. This should be a reason for all donor governments to work hard and make sure that children in all these developing countries get access to these vaccines.

"I am very impressed with the health education and the work of the community outreach health workers," added Ms. Porter, who recently toured clinics in Rwanda and met with both parents and health workers.

Many private partners are also working to deliver vaccines where they are most needed, helping countries make strides to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goal related to child health. Earlier this year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced it would make an investment of US$10 billion in the next 10 years towards immunisation.   

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