By Ben Goldberger
Kenya’s Health Ministry on Tuesday announced that children up to the age of 17 would be vaccinated with a new, highly effective vaccine called Covid-19 (or Dual Immune System, or DIR).
In a statement, Dr. David Ndii, the country’s health minister, said Kenya would be launching a free vaccination campaign for adolescents through the Vaccine Endowment Fund. The Covid-19 vaccine is made by Merck.
Kenya hopes to vaccinate at least 7 million adolescents.
At the same time, many in Africa are concerned about the wider rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine in an era when public health systems in developing countries are struggling to keep up with the costs and demanding priorities of public health.
Vaccine use in Africa was once prevalent, yet in recent years, the spread of the polio virus has compounded concerns about lacking vaccine coverage. The polio virus, the most severe childhood disease, targets the nervous system, causing muscles and tissues to turn stiff and suffocate the child, which eventually kills the child.
This year, one region – the Middle East and North Africa – had new polio cases, the first new cases reported in that region since 2015. An additional 42 people globally, including two Canadian tourists in Tunisia, were infected by the most common strain of the polio virus.
The polio virus, which has since been eliminated in the United States, persists in conflict zones and people with weak immune systems, such as those affected by AIDS.
The battle against polio has become particularly acute as vaccination rates have dropped in conflict zones and rural parts of Africa, a development that has complicated efforts to eradicate the disease.
Last year, Liberia saw the first case of wild polio in six years, raising new concerns about the health of the country, a key global partner in the fight against polio.
The problem was exacerbated by the outbreak of the epizootic paralysis virus, which kills three out of every 100 victims.
As a result, there is also concern about the conditions in Kenya’s rural villages where many families rely on homegrown remedies for children’s ailments. The lack of vaccinations has long raised questions about the reliability of local remedies.
Already, a number of vaccines have been suspended due to the lack of appropriate testing methods for the shots. In 2015, two other vaccines, Brucella and Tetanus toxoid, were banned due to concerns about some types of vaccine.
In recent years, there have been numerous reports of death in Africa, many caused by the congenital disease Tetanus toxoid. This illness happens when an individual is born without an immune system and cannot produce antibodies to Tetanus. As the defective immune system has no ability to fight off a routine infection, the child develops diseases that can prove deadly, like meningitis, Hepatitis B and pneumonia.
Despite its potential risks, the polio and Tetanus toxoid vaccines have been high-quality. It is not yet clear whether that will hold for the new immunization schedule.
On Monday, the World Health Organization released a statement opposing the use of Covid-19, arguing that the vaccine is not tested for potential health effects in the long term and could cause mental and physical disabilities. The vaccine is also not known to prevent immunization diseases, such as measles, which has plagued Africa for decades.
On Tuesday, the CDC dismissed the WHO’s concerns, calling them “absurd” and noting that the vaccines are covered by Medicare and Medicaid.
Kenya’s Vaccine Endowment Fund, which will fund the campaign, is funded by Merck and its subsidiaries.