Lockdown hits immunisation drive against diarrhoea

Kathmandu, May 3

The government’s plan to launch a vaccination programme to reduce deaths from severe diarrhoea among children has hit a roadblock, as the nationwide lockdown enforced to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease has affected imports of the shots.

The government was planning to administer rotavirus vaccine to children below five beginning June by including it in the National Immunisation Programme for the first time. Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe diarrhoea in children across the globe, according to the World Health Organisation.

The government was planning to vaccinate 620,000 children against rotavirus this year.

“To begin the vaccination programme in June, we should have brought the vaccines by now. But we have not been able to do so because of the lockdown and suspension of international flights,” said Jhalak Gautam, chief of the Child Health and Immunisation Section at Family Welfare Division under the Department of Health Services.

Diarrhoea is one of the most common illnesses among Nepali children and continues to be the major cause of childhood morbidity and mortality, according to the Ministry of Health and Population.

Prevalence of diarrhoea among children below five stands at eight per cent, as per the Nepal Demographic Health Survey-2016. The survey showed that six per cent of children below six months and 15.2 per cent of children below 12 months suffered from diarrhoea.

“The vaccine will help reduce rotavirus infection and under-five mortality,” said Gautam.

According to NDHS, 39 out of every 1,000 children below the age of five lose their lives to diseases in Nepal.

The government administers vaccines to avert 11 diseases in children every year under the National Immunisation Programme. These diseases are tuberculosis, polio, Japanese encephalitis, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B, Hib, measles, rubella and pneumococcal disease. About 620,000 children receive these shots annually.

But many children are likely to miss out on these immunisation programmes this year, as the government has suspended a number of these campaigns because of the lockdown, which has affected mobility of health workers. One of the vaccination programmes that has been severely hit is that of measles and rubella. Measles can cause serious complications, including blindness, encephalitis, severe diarrhoea, ear infection and pneumonia, while rubella causes irreversible birth defects.

The government commenced the first phase of the measles-rubella immunisation programme this year on February 13 in provinces 1, 2 and 5. Under the programme, two doses of measles-rubella vaccines were administered to infants of nine months and 15 months. But the measles-rubella immunisation programme, which began in Bagmati, Gandaki, Karnali and Sudurpaschim provinces on March 14, has been suspended indefinitely.

With the campaign being affected, 185 cases of measles have been reported in several parts of the country since January.

Of these measles cases, 113 were reported in Dhading where two children succumbed to illness, according to the Family Welfare Division.

Measles cases were also reported in Pepsicola and Khokana in Kathmandu valley after the lockdown was enforced on March 24.

Sporadic cases of measles have also been reported in Gorkha, Jhapa and Sarlahi.

“Outbreak Response Immunisation Programme kicked off in Benighat and Gajuri of Dhading on April 29 after cases of measles were detected in those areas.

We are working on preventing the spread of measles in other areas,” said Gautam.

A total of 430 cases of measles were reported in Nepal in 2019 while more than 250 cases of the disease were reported in 2018, according to the FWD.

A version of this article appears in e-paper on May 4, 2020, of The Himalayan Times.