By Dr. Kaninika Mitra and Astha Alang
The Measles & Rubella vaccination campaign aims to vaccinate 45 lakh children in the age group of 9 months to 15 years against Measles and Rubella in nine districts of Jharkhand
Vaccines act as armor, a protective shield, safeguarding children, families, and communities from diseases. It is also the most cost-effective way to address vaccine-preventable childhood illnesses and also prevent child deaths. Sustained high coverage of all routine vaccines in all communities has helped in eliminating and eradicating vaccine-preventable diseases like neonatal tetanus, smallpox, and polio. However, outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases are not uncommon and warrant an immediate response.
Recently, a large number of Measles outbreaks have been observed globally, in different states of India including in some districts of Jharkhand, indicating poor coverage of children with routine Measles-Rubella (MR) vaccine, which has led to the rapid spread of measles. Taking note of the situation, and in accordance with the Government of India's goal of “elimination of Measles-Rubella by 2023”, the state Government of Jharkhand launched a special Measles-Rubella campaign. The campaign, which began a few weeks ago, aims to immunize 45 lakh children aged 9 months to 15 years against Measles-Rubella in the nine worst-affected districts of Dumka, Pakur, Sahibganj, Godda, Jamtara, Deoghar, Dhanbad, Koderma, and Giridih.
Despite the outbreaks, it is unfortunate that people often display a casual attitude towards diseases such as measles, viewing it as a normal occurrence that every child is bound to experience in their childhood, and parents often fail to recognize its severity. Measles is in fact a highly contagious viral disease that can cause serious health complications or even death. It has long been a major public health concern, particularly among young children. Children under the age of two have the highest rate of complications and mortality. According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Measles affects nearly 2.7 million children in India each year. Rubella or German Measles which is also a contagious viral disease may show mild symptoms in children, but if pregnant women are affected by Rubella, it can have dangerous consequences for the unborn child in the womb.
Measles is transmitted through respiratory secretions or aerosols and causes painful skin rashes, sore eyes, fever, stiff muscles, and severe coughing in nearly everyone who contracts the virus. While Measles complications include ear infections, diarrhea, pneumonia, brain damage, and even death, Rubella, if contracted by pregnant women can result in lifelong birth disabilities of the growing fetus by affecting multiple organs and causing deafness, blindness, and heart disease, among other things.
VACCINES SAVE LIVES
Measles and Rubella can, however, be prevented with the MR vaccine which provides long-term immunity. Given that these are vaccine-preventable diseases, parents and caregivers must ensure that their children are vaccinated against them to avoid a potential health crisis. While two doses of MR vaccine are provided during routine immunisation to all children below 5 years of age, a further dose during the campaign provides the children with additional protection. As a result, it is critical that children receive the vaccine during both routine immunisation and vaccination campaigns.
During the MR Vaccination Campaign, each child between the age of 9 months to 15 years will be administered one dose of the MR vaccine irrespective of previous vaccinations. The vaccination is provided free of charge to all children in all public and private schools, Anganwadi centres, subcentres and other identified session sites. The vaccination campaign, which will last five weeks, will be monitored by the government, WHO and UNICEF.
MR vaccine is a safe and effective vaccine that has been used in many countries for over 40 years. Notably, between 2000 and 2018, the Measles vaccine prevented more than 23 million deathsglobally, according to UNICEF estimates. As with any other injectable vaccine, usual side effects are mild pain and redness at the injection site, as well as low-grade fever, rash, and muscle aches, which usually subside on their own. There are unfortunately some baseless and unscientific myths associated with Measles vaccine which sometimes impact the vaccine acceptance.
For the MR campaign in Jharkhand to be successful, each district must achieve 100% coverage, and the state government, in collaboration with organisations such as UNICEF and WHO, is working tirelessly to achieve this goal and reach every child. What's more encouraging is that children are actively participating in making this campaign a success. For instance, Khushboo Kumari, who has been designated as an MR Champion by UNICEF and National Health Mission, Jharkhand, has not only received the MR vaccine but has also been working to raise awareness about the campaign by sharing key messages about Measles-Rubella and dispelling myths about the MR vaccine.
On a positive note, the State of the World's Children 2023 report recently highlighted that India is among the nations with the highest vaccine confidence worldwide. This demonstrates that the largest COVID vaccination drive during the pandemic has paid off in boosting confidence and strengthening systems also for routine immunisation to vaccinate every child. It also serves as a recognition of political and social commitment.
Despite commendable progress in terms of vaccine confidence, the general public's lack of awareness and misconceptions about the vaccine still remains one of the major challenges in carrying out a successful campaign. This also warns of the growing threat of vaccine hesitancy, which is caused by factors such as access to false information and a decline in trust in vaccine efficacy. To address these issues, UNICEF is working in the nine target districts of Jharkhand to educate people about the vaccine's safety and benefits through community mobilisation and the use of IEC vans.
To ensure that any campaign of this magnitude is a success and that it reaches every child, sustained efforts and cooperation from all stakeholders are paramount. This is the time for collective action and determination by parents, community members, teachers, healthcare professionals, government officials, and civil society organisations so that children receive routine immunisation. This is the time to protect the health of every child.
(Dr. Kaninika Mitra is the Chief of UNICEF Jharkhand and Ms. Astha Alang is the Communication, Advocacy, and Partnership Specialist, UNICEF Jharkhand.)