Govt moves to clear the air on Covid vaccination

A pupil of Kitante Primary School in Kampala receives a measles, rubella and polio vaccine during the nationwide immunisation campaign on October 16, 2019. Many parents are sceptical about the safety of Covid-19 vaccines for their children.  PHOTO | FILE

A statement by the government’s chief scientist has indicated the walking back of a purported policy on vaccinating all children aged 12 to 17 against Covid-19 starting June 15.

Dr Henry Mwebesa, the Director-General of Health Services at the ministry, denied the allegations in a statement issued on Friday. Dr Mwebesa said they have not even concluded on when to start the exercise.

“The ministry would like to reiterate that no child will be vaccinated against Covid-19 against the consent of the parent, guardian or caretaker. This [consent] will be upheld during the vaccination of children,” he said.

“While government would like to boost the immunity of children against Covid-19 through vaccination, discussions are still ongoing with all the key stakeholders, including parents, on the best approach to be undertaken,” he added without being committal on the timeline.

Mr Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the Ministry of Health spokesperson, told Sunday Monitor a few days ago that they have not yet concluded on when the vaccination will start because discussions are still going on.

Earlier, the messaging around the inoculation of the children aged between 12 and 17 had been muddled. Some media reports indicated that the exercise would be carried with or without the consent of parents, much to their consternation. 

Dr Mwebesa’s communication clears things up, although Dr Yusuf Baseka, the Kasese District Health Officer, told Sunday Monitor on Friday that they will start mandatory mass vaccination of children next week, regardless. Kasese is one of the districts most hit by the resurgence of the pandemic.

“Vaccination is [on]going in facilities for adults, but mass vaccination will run from [June] 15-20 for children aged between 12 and 17. But for adults who are not vaccinated, they can keep coming for vaccination,” he said.

The government is using the Pfizer vaccine, which has been approved for the vaccination of children.

The vaccination of children with comorbidities such as sickle cell—who are considered to be at higher risk of severe Covid-19—has been going on since last year. 

mRNA vaccine unknowns

Dr Clara Wekesa, a physician and also the chairperson of Medics for Faith Association, said parents should be at the centre stage when it comes to the vaccination of their children.

“They (parents) shouldn’t lose autonomy when it comes to the health of their children because they face the liability when there is a vaccine injury. We are sceptical about Covid-19 vaccines because these are a new type of technology in the offing, so we don’t their effects. They are experimental. If it is experimental, someone has to get consent before administering,” she told Sunday Monitor.

Mr Joseph Kabuleta, a former presidential candidate and long-time critic of Covid-19 vaccination, in a media briefing this week, alleged that “[Covid-19] vaccines have gone all over the country under unsafe conditions because they have to be refrigerated.” 

But Dr Baseka said they expect to get the vaccines for the youngsters next week.

Mr Kabuleta, without quantifying or giving the source of his data, claimed: “A vaccine is not of as much risk to me at my age as it is to my teenage son. The data shows that children experience very adverse effects.”

“There are these clowns at the Ministry of Health who are planning to become mass murderers [by vaccinating children] and I know their names … they continue with their thing and deaths start,” he added.

Paediatrics outlook

But Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, the Health minister, said recently that those against vaccination of children lack knowledge. She said many countries are already vaccinating their children because there is clear evidence that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks.

“The World Health Organisation has guided that unless 70 percent of the population is vaccinated, meaning adults and children, we are not yet safe from Covid,” the Health minister said, adding, “That means everybody, five years and above, needs to get vaccinated. We have been vaccinating adults 18 years and above. We have made good progress, but not good enough to say we are out of danger.”

She further revealed thus: “We have enough vaccines for those 12 years and above. We don’t yet have vaccines for five to 11 years because there is a paediatric dose of the Pfizer vaccine. It is only the Pfizer vaccine that we can use on children. We continue encouraging eligible adults to get vaccinated.”

A report published by the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in April this year, indicates that among children aged between 12 and 17: “The incidence of myocarditis or pericarditis (heart complications) were 50-60 cases per 100,000 after infection, 2.2-3.3 cases after the first vaccine dose, and 22-35.9 after the second dose [of Covid-19 vaccine].”

In the study, which was done among 15 million vaccinated Americans, the American CDC concluded: “These findings support continued use of recommended mRNA [Pfizer] vaccines among all eligible persons ages five years and above.”

The agency indicated in its latest update that 59.6 percent of those between 12 and 17 have completed their Covid-19 vaccination, while 69.6 percent are partially vaccinated.

Dr Mwebesa: “The Ministry of Health, together with the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) and Vaccine Advisory Committee (VAC), after consultation with Cabinet, will inform the public accordingly [on when the exercise will start and how it will run].”

Which is which?

The disagreement about the planned vaccination of all children is also within the government. First Lady Janet Museveni last month advised the Ministry of Health to make Covid-19 vaccination for children below 18 years optional. 

Responding to questions raised during a press conference at State House Nakasero on May 4, Ms Museveni—who is also the Education and Sports minister—said the decision of inoculating children against Covid-19 should be left to parents.

“When parents feel free to take their children for vaccination, they [will] do it. If they don’t want to, nobody will force them. It is not compulsory. I do not know where you got that information that it was compulsory,” the First Lady said.

Vaccination in Uganda

The planned mass vaccination of children, which comes amid the resurgence of the pandemic, coincides with the difficulty to exhaust the 44.7 million doses of vaccines the country has so far acquired through donations and direct procurement.

The latest statistics from the Ministry of Health indicate that around 21 million doses have been administered since March 2021. From this, at least 16 million people are vaccinated with one dose out of the 22 million people (about 50 percent of the population), who are 18 years and above. Up to 10.9 million people have been fully vaccinated. 

The Health ministry and National Medical Stores have been silent on allegations that some vaccines have expired because of vaccine hesitancy in the country.