Top barrier to tackling children’s diseases is political reluctance, says UN

Dr. Akeam Hemmings says it can be difficult to convince people to vaccinate against diseases such as measles

One might expect governments, aid agencies and scientists to do their best to prevent the spread of neglected infectious diseases such as measles, but there are myriad barriers to reaching children in countries where such diseases are frequent, says a report from the UN Children’s Fund.

When it comes to children, “vaccine hesitancy is at the top of the list of barriers” and a major concern for public health experts, the joint UN-UNICEF report says.

Around 80% of children born between 2000 and 2015, and almost half of those born between 2005 and 2010, were either not vaccinated or were immunised under a parental consent certificate.

It was often not because people were afraid that they would get measles or polio, but because of their religious beliefs or cultural beliefs that vaccines were against them, said Akeam Hemmings, deputy representative for the UN children’s agency (Unicef) in Ethiopia.

“Vaccine hesitancy has a high level of prevalence in poor and conflict-affected countries, with the two hardest hit being Somalia and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).”

Her institution cited information from Unicef data from 11 counties – they would not identify the countries – that revealed that vaccine hesitancy was strongly associated with children living in the two countries mentioned, and in others around the world: Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

The report, Vaccine Desist, looks at a range of factors associated with vaccine hesitancy including discriminatory attitudes and fear of needles, education about diseases and cultural beliefs related to the vaccine.

Other factors linked to vaccine hesitancy included a mistrust of health officials and the national health systems, social and economic exclusion, exclusion of the girl child and poor socio-economic conditions.

The report suggests that distributing immunisation kits may be helpful for developing countries in developing countries, where travel and customs laws limit the effectiveness of an importation program.

In Yemen the diseases spread because there was a lack of communication between partners on disease prevention, Unicef added. It said vaccination programmes in the war-torn nation aimed to reduce the number of infections and prevent children from dying from the disease, as well as improving their health, and that vaccination campaigns should be sponsored by the international community to provide a true, cohesive and concrete medical intervention.

Researchers stress that religious beliefs, traditional practices, social and economic exclusion and cultural beliefs are not the only reasons to fear vaccination, and urge healthcare workers to question families about health issues.

Hemmings added: “We really need to address the root causes of vaccination hesitancy as soon as possible, including how it influences the health of young children, and especially girls, in conflict-affected countries.”

In a response to the report, a spokesperson for the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said: “Against the background of growing evidence on the challenges posed by vaccine hesitancy, the secretary-general will convene a high-level meeting in March 2019 to review how to strengthen public health and immunisation systems.”

Leave a Comment