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By Anne Kiruku
East African News Agency

Arusha 25 November 2017 (EANA) – The €35 million awarded last week to the East African Community partner states by Germany to support health and education initiatives in the region will only benefit East Africa if our religious leaders change their attitude towards immunisation.

Immunisation of children below five years has faced many hurdles, especially from faith-based organisations; religious leaders have claimed that the vaccines are laced with contraceptive drugs. They have said that most of the vaccines are not meant to prevent diseases but are used as population control measures.

The religious leaders have been apprehensive about the vaccines, citing the lack of consultations and information about the vaccines. They have also questioned why most of the vaccines have targeted women, especially those aged between 14 and 49 years.

Anne Kiruku

Even more detrimental to the fight are the constant claims by Taliban leaders that vaccines are America’s ploy to sterilise Muslim women. Vaccination advocates have been killed in their line of duty. The use of the hepatitis vaccination programme by America’s Central Intelligence Agency to locate Osama bin Laden in 2011 has been a major setback in efforts to popularise vaccines in Muslim countries.

In the early years of this millennium, leaders in northern Nigeria advised their followers not to have their children immunised against polio. The move was a huge setback in efforts to eradicate the disease. Due to negative campaigns by Nigerian religious leaders, the country reported 20,000 measles cases and 600 deaths in the first three months of 2005.

Already, retrogressive cultural practices – coupled with low literacy levels – are hindering the fight against child mortality rates across the region, especially in rural areas and slums.

Lack of infrastructure, especially roads in rural areas, has made it impossible to reach highly-marginalised regions, further complicating matters.

The situation is dire for pastoralists who lead nomadic lives; lack of health facilities in such remote areas as well as inaccessibility to the few available ones have complicated the fight against preventable childhood diseases.

Perennial strikes by health workers, too, have worsened an already bad situation. Equally, the lack of sufficient health workers in the available health facilities caused by the brain drain to the developed wold, and lack of commitment by governments in training enough health workers, has adversely affected child mortality rates.

It is imperative for governments, in collaboration with United Nations agencies and other international organisations, to work together with religious groups to ensure full acceptance of vaccines.

Religious leaders must ensure the authenticity of whatever information they preach to their followers regarding vaccines. Proper tests and information must be sought to ensure their claims are backed by verifiable evidence that can be scientifically proven.

The religious leaders must also ensure their opinions, beliefs, cultural practices, social norms and doctrines do not interfere with the right of people to access immunisation facilities.

Some religious leaders have been accused of having political motives and use opposition to a government-sanctioned health programme to further their own agenda. This should be discouraged and the media should come in handy to expose such craftiness among unscrupulous religious leaders.

It is the duty of the government to revitalise communication channels already in se through community groups, health workers, vaccination outreach teams, radio and television networks to ensure information disseminated is accurate and responds to specific issues raised by the resistant group.

Allowing the religious leaders to take a leading role in immunisation programmes will go along way in raising acceptance levels. Social mobilisations teams should be drawn from religious groups, who should be used to disseminate information about immunisation programmes. This will ensure the religious leaders own the programmes.

It is crucial for governments in the region to ensure immunisation messages get to isolated populations, who happen to be have the highest levels of illiteracy and experience poor broadcast network coverage.
Quite unfortunately, most immunisation programmes in the region are funded by the donor community. Financial constraints in running the programmes is evident, resulting in the high number of unpenetrated regions.

It is therefore prudent for partner states to make enough budgetary allocations to sufficiently combat the problem. The high child mortality rates in the region cannot be won without winning the war against low penetration of immunisation.


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