An education campaign launched by Cambodia’s National Immunization Program (NIP) in the aftermath of last year’s HIV outbreak in Battambang has been effective in dispelling the concerns of parents hesitant to get their children vaccinated, government health bodies and the World Health Organization have said.
Tainted injections administered by a local unlicensed medical practitioner in Roka commune was identified by the National Centre for HIV/AIDS, Dermatology and STD Control (NCHADS) as the primary reason for the outbreak.
Since it was first detected in the commune last December, the number of HIV-positive cases had, by April 3, risen to 248, said NCHADS director Dr Ly Penh Sun.
The number of HIV-related fatalities has also increased to seven, with Roka’s deputy commune chief the latest victim.
“Since then, some mothers – especially from Roka village and some remote areas – have been afraid to bring their children in for vaccinations,” NIP director Sann Chan Soeung said yesterday. “It was a serious issue and they were very scared, so we decided to respond immediately.”
NIP, along with partners including the World Health Organisation, initiated a program in December to educate parents about the vaccination program in Cambodia and eliminate their fears of possibly exposing their children to infections.
The “re-education”, which was rolled out nationwide but primarily in Battambang, occurred during NIP workers’ monthly visits to health centres.
“Every time there was a parent who didn’t want to get their children vaccinated, we had a health worker explain to them how the HIV situation in Battambang has no link at all with the vaccinations and how we use auto-disable syringes to deliver all our vaccines,” Soeung said.
To prevent the spread of diseases, NIP has been using so-called “smart” syringes that disable after a single use since 2001.
Provincial and national health workers, according to WHO immunisation program technical officer Dr Shafiqul Hossain, have recently appeared on TV to demonstrate the mechanism behind the auto-disable syringes and further refute the link between vaccines and Battambang’s HIV epidemic.
NIP staff and local health workers did not perform a formal tally on the number of hesitant parents, but reported that the situation is “no longer serious”.
“Although some parents remain sceptical at first, only a small number continue to opt out of inoculations for their children,” Soeung added.
Their scepticism, however, was not a surprise, Hossain said.
“This normally happens when there’s an outbreak of such magnitude like the one in Roka,” he said. “But to decrease the chances of this happening in the future, NIP is thinking of doubling up its message on the benefits of vaccines in the coming years.”
Both organisations are planning to bring in a communications specialist from overseas to raise awareness about vaccinations.
In 2014, the Battambang Health Department recorded that about 85 per cent of children under the age of 1 were receiving inoculations.
“We don’t know the exact count for Roka commune, but officers on the ground said there’s some, but not necessarily [a] significant variance in numbers,” said Battambang Health Department deputy director Dr Sou Sanith. “Most [children] seem to now be getting vaccinated normally.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PECH SOTHEARY