Sunday, November 08, 2009

Delivering vaccines in Africa: some unethical obstacles

The attention and money thrown at the H1N1 virus seems to grow by the day, even if the numbers of H1N1 related deaths, relative to other causes of mortality (including plain old seasonal flu), are still very modest. People actually die from H1N1, so it is not nice to make light of it, and because it is contagious, the death toll will rise, though we don't know how high or for how long. Nevertheless, there is no way of getting around the impression that the world's media is drawn to the latest viral threat to the richer developed nations, where the knight in shining armour is played by multinational pharmaceutical companies, whose cutting-edge research thankfully produces the latest vaccine, while the media makes rapid and widespread vaccination seem like the only rational response, and governments and local health agencies stand to be criticized for not getting vaccines into bodies fast enough. The significance of the H1N1 virus as a threat to humanity? Only time will tell. But that a great deal of money is being made: that is already certain.

Elsewhere in the world, other fish are frying. Forget new cutting-edge research for new diseases: in many countries, it is hard enough just to get the old vaccines administered, for the boring old diseases, the ones that people in developed nations hardly get anymore because they are routinely vaccinated against them. Take measles. Two troubling stories about measles vaccination in Africa came in this week.

First, here in South Africa, some media sources managed to revive the discredited measles-autism link, i.e. that the measles vaccine causes autism in children. A little media ethics for journalists working on public health issues could go a long way, and hopefully these incidents will not cause setbacks for measles eradication in South Africa, similar to the problems with polio vaccination in Nigeria some years back. The recent decline in measles mortality in Africa is a success story, but only conserted and sustained efforts (including communication of accurate health information) will keep those numbers going down.

Second, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, measles vaccination efforts face an unusual adversary: government troops. Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) has accused the Congolese government of using their vaccination sites as bait. Due to a measles epidemic, MSF was vaccinating thousands of children in sites locations that are controlled by the Forces Democratique de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) . Knowing that people in the area would gravitate to the opportunity for measles vaccination, Congolese government troops apparently attacked all seven sites with deadly force, scattering populations (including children) into the bush. It remains to be seen if people in the area will trust going back to MSF sites for medical care, and in this troubled part of the world, that is about the only decent medical care around.

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Blogger Blanket said...

Healthcare should be given a free hand to get the benefits to all the people in the land.


2:46 AM  

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