In the Bafatá region of eastern Guinea-Bissau, more than 28,500 children between six months and five years old have been vaccinated against measles by the country’s Ministry of Health and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The vaccination campaign lasted five days, from 11 to 16 July and, according to preliminary data, 97% of the children in the area have been vaccinated.
This latest campaign covered all the health areas in the region except that of Bafatá, where about 8,000 children were already vaccinated against measles last March, after there were a number of confirmed cases in the area. The government of Guinea-Bissau had planned to run a national campaign against measles in December, but after an epidemic was declared, it decided to vaccinate the entire Bafatá region as soon as it had the vaccines and the necessary resources.
“Our teams collaborated with the Ministry of Health staff to prepare the whole campaign, making sure all the necessary material was available – from vaccines well preserved in the cold chain to staff able to administer them,” explains Susana Villén, a medical coordinator for MSF in Guinea-Bissau. “It has also been crucial to inform the people about the vaccination. In this type of campaign it is important to achieve good coverage, i.e. vaccinate as many children as possible, in order to achieve collective immunity.”
Community leaders and regional authorities were actively involved in the campaign, raising public awareness about the importance of immunising young children. Alima Fati responded to the mobilisation after hearing about the vaccination campaign over the loudspeakers of the mosque. She is a young mother, and to safeguard the good health of her daughter Aissatu Fati she took her to be vaccinated despite knowing little about measles.
Measles is a highly contagious viral illness that can cause serious complications. There is no specific treatment for measles; it is the symptoms and possible complications that are treated. The vaccine is the only really effective method of preventing the disease. “In western countries where most of the children are vaccinated, measles is not a public health concern. But in developing countries with little access to quality health services, it can cause serious complications and death,” says Luis Encinas, head of MSF's operations in Guinea-Bissau.
In the Bafatá region, MSF is working on a paediatric care project. The organisation is also helping the authorities to prepare a response to a suspected case of Ebola and has a programme underway to prevent cholera in Bissau, the country’s capital.
MSF has worked in Guinea-Bissau intermittently over the past two decades. Since its first intervention in 1998, MSF has carried out several projects to respond to epidemics of cholera, meningitis and measles, and to provide assistance to victims of violence and internally displaced people.
In November 2014, MSF began working in the paediatric unit of the Bafatá regional hospital and in the Tantan Cossé and Contuboel health centres. The organisation is also prepared to respond to medical emergencies in the country.
Testimonies from the measles vaccination campaign in Bafata
Sise Fati is from Djabicunda, a village in the Tantan Cosse health area, where in October 2014 MSF started activities providing paediatric healthcare for children under the age of five.
Djabicunda is a large village, with 4,000 inhabitants. Most of them are Mandingas and Ddjacancas, Muslim ethnic groups characterised by the high value they give to community life and tight-knit families.
Sise is 29 years old and is the third wife of her husband, who is also from Djabicunda. Her tasks consist of housekeeping, taking care of their children and growing vegetables and peanuts.
The day before the campaign started, her sister-in-law, Cumba Camara, a community health worker, told her where and when the measles vaccination team would be in her neighbourhood, as well as the advantages of having her children vaccinated.
She has five children and she has had the four under the age of five vaccinated. She knows that having them vaccinated will prevent them from getting the disease and that because of the high fever it causes measles is a debilitating and taxing disease for younger children.
Deifatu Fai was born in Senegal, in the region of Kaolack, but she has been living in Sumbundo village, in the health area of Tendinto, for three months. In Senegal, she married Malam Marena, a 27-year-old Mandinga from Sumbundo who moved to Senegal for work reasons but has since returned in order to be closer to his family. Their daughter is nine months old and was the child #215 vaccinated by the vaccination team dispatched at their village. She is an only child and her parents are well aware of the importance of vaccinating her to “cut the disease”. The information from the community health worker reached them quickly through the speaker at the mosque, and they approached the vaccination stand bringing their daughter’s vaccination record with them. Both parents are young and know that if their daughter caught measles, she would have eye pain, high fever, a skin rash and a cough.
Suncar Embalo, 27, lives in Sintcha Samba, in the health area of Fajonquito, despite being a native of Madina Sara. She has four children and today she took the youngest two and her sister’s son to be vaccinated against measles. Souley, the community health worker at their village, arrived two days ago to tell them the vaccination team would come on 14 July to vaccinate all the children between six and 59 months.
She has a good knowledge of measles because Souley explained to them that the disease causes fever and a skin rash. She cares for her children’s health and is following the vaccination schedule. She knows that vaccinating them improves their health and prevents them from catching the disease.