Sierra Leone conducts immunization and birth registration campaigns for children under 5. Photo courtesy of WHO/E. Kalondo
In Sierra Leone, the Ebola outbreak has affected all aspects of healthcare. Exact numbers are yet to be confirmed but it is clear that many children have missed out on routine vaccination services and birth registration during the outbreak. To counter this, mass immunization campaigns are being held to enable children to catch up. In June this year, an integrated measles and polio campaign was conducted reaching 97 percent of children under the age of 5.
In mid-July, Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation, supported by the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, Plan Sierra Leone (nongovernmental organization) and other partners held a three-day campaign to vaccinate 1.4 million children against polio.
The campaign also registered births, issuing birth certificates for an estimated 200 000 children born at home during the Ebola outbreak. Children not registered at birth prior to the outbreak were also registered and issued with certificates nationwide.
"Immunization campaigns are important steps in protecting children against preventable diseases and assuring their well-being," says Dr. Anders Nordström, WHO representative in Sierra Leone. "While we are still striving to get to zero Ebola, restoring services – such as birth registration and routine immunization – and empowering social structures and institutions to be functional is critical in transitioning from the Ebola response to a concrete recovery process."
This is the first time healthcare services and civil registration services for children have been integrated in mass campaigns like this one in Sierra Leone.
The door-to-door campaign also provided a good opportunity to vaccinate children who missed routine immunization. Families in homes under quarantine in Ebola-affected areas also benefitted from these essential services.
“I am happy to receive these services for my newborn child because they are free and right here at my home. Imagine if I had to walk in the rains to go to the health centre and at the same time pay for the services,” says Adama Conteh, a 39-year-old woman at the Red Pump Community in Freetown. Adama’s 11-day-old son, Mohamed, had just received his polio vaccination and a birth certificate.
After vaccination, indelible ink is marked on the children’s fingers as proof that they were vaccinated. Independent monitors conduct post campaign monitoring to assess coverage.
Birth registration is an essential part of protecting children’s rights. Although 78 percent of children under the age of 5 are registered at birth in Sierra Leone, those who lack identity documents are at risk of child labor, early marriage and other forms of violence.
While the last case of wild polio virus in the country was reported in 2010, Sierra Leone, like other countries in the region, still stands the risk of polio re-infection. The African region has not yet been certified polio free thereby making every country vulnerable to the disease.