It’s just a little over a year since Rwanda introduced a pneumococcal conjugate vaccine known as PCV-7, which protects children against one of the most severe causes of pneumonia, and the results seem positive.
Particularly in Nyamata, Bugesera an hour’s drive away from Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, both residents and health workers admit that a significant change has been registered.
As Dr. Dariya Mukamusoni, the Director at the hospital explains: “The rate of hospitalization for pneumonia amongst infants has certainly declined suggesting that the decrease in infection rates in younger children is due to the vaccine.”
“Of course it is just one year after the introduction of the vaccine, the full impact of the vaccine is still difficult to evaluate,” she adds.
Dr Mukamusoni reckons that as much as the administration of the vaccine is a very important factor in the reduction of pneumonia and its associated complications, community health education also helps parents to understand the importance of immunisation.
She stresses that the more educated the parents are, the less the level of reported infections.
Rwanda introduced PCV7 in April, 2009 thanks to lobbying by UNICEF and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) and a generous donation from Wyeth Corporation.
UNICEF, GAVI and other partners have been supporting the Ministry of Health to strengthen systems for child health delivery, which has enabled Rwanda to be amongst the first developing countries to benefit from PCV7.
And a typical immunisation day at Nyamata Health Centre attests to that fact. Here, as in other health centres, hundreds of parents turn up on designated days– in Nyamata on Wednesday and Friday—to have their children immunised and hear from nurses and community health workers about various topics, including breastfeeding, nutrition, family planning, etc.
Pierre Rwigamba is one of the fathers who had turned up with his four-month-old son, Kecy Rwigamba.
“When my wife is busy,” he explains, “I find it responsible to bring the baby for immunisation. I understand that the good growth and development of a child is a collective responsibility of both parents.”
A driver by profession, Rwigamba is keen to benefit from the opportunity of having Rwanda as the first developing country to have the pneumococcal vaccine because he is sure that if other developing countries do the same, it would be beneficial for the future generation.
Available statistics indicate that pneumonia claims nearly one million lives each year - more than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Projections show that if all other countries followed suit, 5.4 million child deaths could be prevented in the next 20 years.
According to Doune Porter, a spokesperson of GAVI, it is important to let wealthy countries know that more than 1.5 million children needlessly die of pneumonia around the world each year, despite the fact that the disease is both treatable and preventable.
“Most people in the western world think that pneumonia only kills old people yet in Africa it’s the number one killer of children,” said Porter.
“This should be a reason for all donor governments to work hard and make sure that children in all these developing countries get access to these vaccines,” Porter added.
After touring and talking to parents, health workers and having had a firsthand experience of the health service delivery in Rwanda’s hospitals and health centres, Porter confessed that she is, “very impressed with the health education and the work of the community outreach health workers.”
She said, that she hoped government investments in vaccines to prevent these child deaths would increase in the next few years.
Many private partners are also working to deliver vaccines where they are most needed. Earlier this year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced it would make an investment of $10 billion in the next 10 years towards immunisation.
If Rwanda continues along the path to accelerate child health, it is sure to be amongst the top countries to reach the MDGs to improve child survival in the years to come.