Editorial Comment: Rolling out a vaccination plan

The announcement by the World Health Organization that the meningococcal conjugate vaccines are safe will no doubt be welcomed by many people. The confirmation from the WHO came in the wake of Government’s plan to embark on a mass vaccination program for more than 300,000 Fijians under the age of 19 years.

The vaccination with conjugate meningococcal vaccine, WHO said, was highly effective in preventing people from becoming infected with serogroup C meningococcal bacteria. The meningococcal vaccines were also well tolerated, it said, although there would be some slight side effects. Common side effects, it said, included pain, tenderness and occasional redness at the injection site which typically resolved within one day. Headaches may also occur, it said. The effects, however, it said, could be treated with paracetamol.

When the vaccine was used in mass vaccination campaigns, WHO said, such as the one planned for Fiji, there would be a marked reduction in the disease. All cases of meningococcal identified in the country so far have been among people below the age of 20 years. The vaccine also provides population immunity, WHO said, which protects the unvaccinated as well. Vaccination for prevention against the meningococcal disease, it said, could last up to three years. The Attorney-General, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, had announced the vaccination plan in Parliament and this followed endorsement by Cabinet. It is expected to cost the State $40 million.

Cabinet, he said, had “already approved the purchase or procurement of vaccines to vaccinate every single Fijian from 19 years and below”. About 345,000 Fijians, he said, would be vaccinated. The Ministry of Health and Medical Services announced an outbreak of meningococcal in the country last month. In an earlier report, WHO said it was important to remember that not everyone who had the bacteria would get the disease. During an outbreak, between 10-25 per cent of the general population, it said, would carry the bacteria at the back of their nose and mouth from time to time, but would not have symptoms. While the disease was uncommon, it said, it could affect anyone.

There was, however, a higher risk for babies, children and young adults. Prior to 2016, there were 1-10 cases per year reported. In 2016 there were 29 cases, and this rose to 48 cases in 2017. Understandably there would be questions raised about the impact of the disease, vaccination process, and the delay in raising awareness. However, while it is critically important that we are aware of symptoms of meningococcal disease, it is comforting to know that the WHO considers our planned vaccination program safe. The challenge now for the powers that be is to roll out the plan as soon as possible, embrace possible issues that may pop up and take appropriate action to address them.

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