ACCRA, Ghana (July 19, 2012) — Alimatu Mohammed drove for three hours on a rattling minibus to get her son treated for severe diarrhea at a hospital.
It’s a journey she hopes never to repeat, thanks to the new rotavirus vaccine against severe infant diarrhea that was launched in Ghana.
The launch makes Ghana the first African country to introduce pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines at the same time. These immunizations will simultaneously tackle pneumonia and diarrhea—two of the biggest killers of Ghanaian children.
It’s a relief for Mohammed, whose son, Harris, was so severely dehydrated that nurses struggled to find a vein to administer intravenous fluids.
“He had diarrhea for three days, and he became so weak he couldn’t do anything,” she said. “When he came here, the nurses tried to put a drip in his arms and his legs [to rehydrate him]. It was very difficult for them. I was scared and I was praying.” They eventually found a vein, and Harris began to improve. But too often, the story does not end happily. Diarrhea kills 9% of children in Ghana.
UNICEF has supported the move by the Ghana Health Service and its partner, the GAVI Alliance, to introduce the new vaccines.
“These two vaccines can and will have a profound impact on the present and future generations of this nation’s greatest resource… its children,” UNICEF Representative in Ghana Iyabode Olusanmi told the hundreds of people attending the vaccine’s launch at Independence Square in Accra.
It was unprecedented for Ghana to introduce two vaccines at once. But a ward at Princess Marie Louise Children’s Hospital in Accra shows the importance of the simultaneous introduction. Of the ten children in the ward, four had diarrhea and three had pneumonia. Pediatrician Dr. Margaret Neizer said pneumonia was the top cause of death at the hospital last year.
“Yes, it is challenging to introduce two vaccines at the same time, but the diseases are not waiting for us,” said Dr. K.O. Antwi-Agyei, manager of Ghana’s Expanded Program on Immunization. “In the meantime, people are dying. We need to do business unusually.”
Ghana’s Minister of Health M. Alban S. K. Bagbin spoke of the vaccines’ importance to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). “This moment begins a major fightback,” he said. “With these vaccines, we want to, and we will, achieve MDG 4—the 2/3 reduction of our child mortality—by 2015.”
With the launch, the vaccines became available in every clinic and health center in the country.
It was a huge logistical undertaking and required an increase in refrigerated storage in all ten regions.
“This joint introduction will save time because we’ll be using the same resources and the same people,” National Cold Chain Manager Paul Bediako said. “It is much more efficient than introducing one vaccine and then waiting one or two years to introduce the other.”
The mango-growing area of Dodowa was the first place in the country to receive the vaccines, and Joyce was one of the first babies to benefit.
Her mother, Rahel Larbi, heard about the vaccine from an announcement van that drove by her house. The van was part of the social mobilization campaign underway across the country. Health workers, journalists, teachers, religious leaders, community leaders and village health volunteers are all helping to spread the word.
The crowded health center at Dodowa showed the success of that campaign.
“With the hard work and effort that has gone into this double launch, Ghana has established itself as a pioneer in the fight against pneumonia and diarrheal disease,” said GAVI CEO Dr. Seth Berkley.