Bridging Immunization Gaps for Children

By Caroline Olela

In Kenya, an estimated 8 out of 10 children are fully vaccinated by their first birthday. Immunization is a proven protection against 14 serious illnesses that affect children under the age of 2 years. PS Kenya’s immunization program equips community health volunteers with immunization information which they pass on to caregivers resulting in a significant reduction in cases of childhood diseases. Photo: PS Kenya/ Ezra Abaga

We are at Kotwoya Village, Homa Bay County, Kenya. The purpose of our visit today is to follow up on the progress Mr. Nicholas Otieno’s family is making to ensure the younger children get all their vaccinations. Nicholas is a tailor who works in Kisii, while his wife Mourine is a house wife who earns her living off the family piece of land. The couple has lost a number of children in the past. The well being of their remaining sons is of paramount importance to them.

As we approach Mr. Otieno’s home, we meet Moses — his four year old boy playing at the front yard with his friends. Moses quickly runs to the home where he announces to his parents about the visitors. Mourine is carrying her 4 month old last born son Brighton as we begin the discussion on how he is progressing with the immunizations. So far, he is up to date with his vaccinations and is tracking well in terms of his weight and height.

Caren is the Community Health Volunteer (CHV) working within Kotwoya B Village charged with educating caregivers on Immunization. Thanks to these visits to Nicholas’ homestead, their son has not missed any vaccine appointment. Mourine was enrolled for clinic just before she delivered Brighton to ensure that he gets the first dose of Immunization at the appointed time. Having lost a number of children previously, Mourine was followed up by Caren to ensure she attended clinic during pregnancy and after delivery of her two sons Brighton and Moses.

Since the education we have given the family through the USAID HCM funded immunization program, which equips community health volunteers with immunization information which they pass on to caregivers, the parents are seeing great improvement in the health of their younger children Brighton and Moses who are currently on the program.

“We did not immunize our older children and it has cost us greatly. Our oldest is 16 years and is often sickly and I believe that missing out on the vaccines has something to do with his illness,” narrates Nicholas, who between the first and current third born child, has lost 5 children. “We followed all the regulations provided by our culture and completed all the traditional rituals but this did not prevent our children from death,” Nicholas explains sadly. Nicholas had given up on having more children after Moses because of the deaths but when he was visited by Caren and given all the education, his hope was restored. “We learnt about the importance of attending ANC clinics when Mourine was pregnant with Brighton and the CHV walked with us until after his birth to ensure he had all his immunizations done,” said Nicholas.

Despite the loss, Nicholas is moving forward as an ambassador for immunization at his home and village. He ensures that his children regularly visit the clinic for check-ups and adhere to the immunization schedule. Since they started following the CHV ‘s advice, they have a healthy four year old Moses who has completed his immunization schedules and Brighton who is up to date with his vaccines up to 14 weeks.

Caren visits Nicholas and other families regularly to enlighten them on the importance of Immunization. During these visits, they discuss the teachings they received from the previous meeting and provide an update from their last clinic visit.

Immunization is a proven protection against 14 serious illnesses that affect children under the age of 2 years. These diseases that vaccines prevent are deadly. Vaccines reduce your child’s risk of infection by working with their body’s natural defenses to help them safely develop immunity to disease.

Vaccines also help develop immunity by imitating an infection, but this “imitation” infection does not cause illness. Instead it causes the immune system to develop the same response as it does to a real infection so the body can recognize and fight the vaccine-preventable disease in the future. Sometimes, after getting a vaccine, the imitation infection can cause minor symptoms, such as fever. Such minor symptoms are normal and should be expected as the body builds immunity.

Nicholas story is evidence that immunization makes a difference even after experiencing so much loss. Nicholas and Mourine are potential ambassadors of the benefits of immunization in their community while Nicholas shows the great role that males can play in reinforcing the positive behavior of ensuring that their children adhere to immunization. With the education the head of the household receives, it is easier to dispel the myths associated with immunization and garner acceptance in a family.

About the author 
Caroline Olela
works under the PS Kenya Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) Program, Homa Bay County, Kenya.