By Henry Neondo
The Kenya Government will on Friday launch the first phase of an emergency vaccination campaign against measles which has over the last six months killed 41 children.
Targeting 560, 000 children under the age of five years, the campaign will be carried out in 16 districts identified as "vulnerable" and where 1,600 cases have been reported.
The whole of Nairobi Province will be covered in the new campaign as it has recorded the highest number of deaths – 15 out of the 41 fatalities.
Other districts targeted are Mandera where 11 people have died, Wajir (five) Garissa, Rachuonyo and Mombasa where three people have died. In these areas, more than 70 per cent of the children have not been immunised.
"This is far below the ministry's and WHO's targets which are to ensure that at least 95 per cent of the children in any district are immunised," the director of Medical Services, Dr James Nyikal, said.
Other districts targeted are Garissa, Mandera, Wajir, Ijara, Tana River, Isiolo, Marsabit and Moyale which are in North Eastern, Eastern and Coast provinces bordering Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia.
"An influx of illegal immigrants from neighbouring countries, who had failed to get their children immunised against the disease when they reached nine months, has fuelled the spread of the disease," Dr Nyikal said.
According to Alfred Kenyanito, an Expanded Programme on Immunisation at the Kenya's UNICEF office, there are at least 100 Somalis daily flocking to Mombasa from Kismayu due to skirmishes in the Baidoa areas of southern Somalia.
He said that most of the neighbouring countries have had no immunisation programme, leading to outbreaks in places where immigrants seek refuge.
Understanding the risk that Kenyans faced because of this trend, the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) rehabilitated and officially opened a clinic at Nairobi's Eastleigh estate to encourage refugee, mostly Somalia mothers and others whose immigration status may not be clear, to take their children for vaccination.
At the centre, none of the mothers are questioned or expected to give their immigration status. All they are expected to do is to take advantage of the services to ensure that their children are immunised.
Dr Nyikal attributed the spread of measles to failure by many parents to take their children for immunisation to boost their resistance after the first vaccine given at nine months.
During the routine immunisation, young mothers are encouraged to take children to clinics for vaccination against all childhood diseases. However, the measles vaccine is usually among the last to be provided when a child is nine months old.
"Many of our young mothers ignore this last vaccine assuming that their children's immunisation programme is complete. It is a grave mistake that they make and has resulted in this recent outbreak," Dr Nyikal said.
Apart from the emergency vaccination programme to be launched on Saturday, Dr Nyikal ordered the public health officials as well as hospitals to educate and reinforce the message that is contained in the Kenya Expanded Programme on Immunisation which is aimed at ensuring that all children, irrespective of age, receive the full complement of vaccines required to protect them against such diseases.
"I would therefore like to appeal to parents and guardians to take children aged five years and below for the free exercise regardless of their current immunisation status," he said. The week-long measles and polio immunisation campaign starts on Saturday.
Measles vaccines will be given to children aged between nine months and five years, while the polio one will be given to newborns and children below five years.
Experts say that measles causes 20 per cent of deaths among Kenyan children aged five years and below. It is one of the most contagious diseases known to man and almost all children who have not been immunised contract measles if exposed to the virus. Symptoms include fever, red eyes, running nose, body rashes and general fatigue.
Apart from the immunisation, children in the targeted areas will also be given vitamin A supplements to boost their resistance against diseases, while Isiolo District residents will benefit from insecticide-treated mosquito nets.