Childhood vaccines shortage reported at South African clinics

Picture of anonymous mom and child
Photo by Obed Esquivel on Unsplash

Khathutshelo Nemafhohoni from Tshikombani village, outside Louis Trichard in the Vhembe district of Limpopo told Health-e News that she has visited every local clinic in search of the all-important PCV1 vaccine which is supposed to be given to a baby at 6 weeks and a DTap-IPV-Hib-HBV-1 and Rotavirus 2 vaccines which are supposed to be administered at 10 weeks.

But so far, no clinic in the region can help her.

That also comes as the South African government is trying to deflect criticism that is has failed to secure Covid-19 vaccines timeously.

“It’s so frustrating and worrying not being able to find those essential vaccines at our local clinics as I do not know what will happen to the health of my baby if I do not find those vaccines soon,” said Nemafhohoni.

“For the past weeks I have went to almost all local clinics in Nzhelele area but with no luck as I have been told that the clinics do not have those vaccines and they do not know when they will be available,” says Nemafhohoni.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), unvaccinated children could be in danger.

“Before vaccines, many children died from diseases that vaccines now prevent, such as whooping cough, measles and polio. Those same germs exist today, but because babies are protected by vaccines, we don’t see these diseases nearly as often,” the CDC said in a statement.

According to the World Health Organization(WHO), immunization is a proven tool for controlling and eliminating life-threatening infectious diseases and is estimated to avert between 2 and 3 million deaths each year as it is one of the most cost-effective health investments, with proven strategies that make it accessible to even hard to reach and vulnerable populations.

Nemafhohoni says that the fact that her baby has already missed immunization for 6 and 10 weeks gives her sleepless nights.

“By now my baby was supposed to have already received immunization for 6 weeks but the clinics do not have those vaccination and now at 13 weeks has already missed a (DTap-IPV-Hib-HBV)2, which a child is supposed to receive when they turn 10 weeks old. I hardly sleep at night thinking of what might happen to my baby if I do not find those vaccines sooner,” she says.

“I am worried as a mother as I know the importance of those vaccines and not knowing when they might be available makes me worry even more as at one of the clinics they have even told me that it might take several months before the vaccines can be available again,”.

Nemafhohoni says that she cannot afford to take her baby to a private health facility to be vaccinated and has no other choice but to wait for the department of health to make those essential vaccines available at clinics again.

“The worst part is that its only us who depend on public health who will suffer as we cannot afford to take our children to the private doctors for those vaccines,” she added.

Government under pressure

Meanwhile a petition has been launched by health care professionals who say the South African Health Ministry is failing to provide support for the upcoming vaccine rollout world wide. According to a group calling itself “Concerned health Professionals”, South Africa faces huge pressure on hospital beds, health facilities, health workers and institutions of care.

Jackson Mthembu waving at sick woman in hospital during Covid-19 pandemic
Minister in the Presidency, Jackson Mthembu visiting the Harry Gwala District Municipality to assess government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Image: GCIS

“We are also very concerned at the emergence of new viral strains that may be more infectious and transmissible” the group said as reports surfaced that Government has failed to secure Covid-19 vaccines because of a shortage of cash.

“We appeal to the Department of Health (DOH) to engage in bilateral discussions with vaccine manufacturers and to make public an effective plan to procure and distribute vaccines,” the group said in a statement.

“We ask the DOH to start by vaccinating frontline health workers, followed by those most at risk including elderly people and people with comorbidities.  We call on the DOH to act urgently, transparently and decisively now to obtain vaccines and to implement vaccination, so as to reduce death and illness, and bring the pandemic under control

Vaccine is on its way

South Africa is set to receive initial vaccines from the COVAX facility to cover 10% of its population in the early part of 2021. Priority of the vaccine roll out will begin with healthcare workers, the elderly and those with comorbidities.

“The COVAX facility has indicated that we should expect delivery of the vaccine in quarter two [of 2021],” said Health Department Deputy Director General, Dr Anban Pillay,

“They are trying very hard to get us delivery before that. If they succeed with the manufacturers, then we may get delivery earlier but we do not have a specific date as yet.

“COVAX indicated to us that in early January, they will  have a firm date on when exactly that delivery will come through and we will certainly communicate that as soon as we hear what that date is,” said Pillay.

“One needs to bear in mind that the Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius. Many countries did not opt to go with the Pfizer vaccine as a mass vaccination programme because it is very difficult to do that, particularly in  a country like South Africa and many other developing nations that do not have storage capacity for -70 degrees.

“We have commercially only two large storage facilities that will keep a -70 degrees vaccine. So we would not be able to keep the large quantities that are required to vaccinate many people,” he said.

More than one way to beat Covid-19

But other experts have warned that a vaccine is just one way to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There is a general misunderstanding and we need to clarify that once the vaccines arrive on our doorstep, that is not the end of the epidemic,” said Covid-19 Ministerial Advisory Committee chairperson Professor Barry Schoub/

Th”e first branches will go to protect healthcare workers and will have no effect on the population as such. Then there will be immunisation of the population and that is going to take a long time,” he warned.

Schoub, together with Dr Anban Pillay, and South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) extramural unit researcher, Safura Abdool Karim, engaged in a panel discussion broadcast by the SABC on the COVID-19 vaccine outlook on the last day of 2020.

-Health-e News with




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