Being one of the few African countries continuously praised for their achievements in the health sector, Eritrea has scored tremendous success in the coverage of vaccinations. Over the last 29 years, the Ministry of Health (MoH) has conducted enormous works to ensure that every child is vaccinated throughout the country. With a number of less than 10% kids vaccinated after Eritrea’s independence, the MoH has now been able to tremendously increase the number of kids that are protected against many diseases caused by bacteria and viruses. Mr. Tedros Yhdego, Head of the Vaccination Program at the Ministry of Health, had an interview with the Eritrean News Agency about the general vaccination programs in Eritrea in the last 29 years.
- Thank you for your time, Mr Tedros. Could you briefly introduce our readers to the state of vaccination in Eritrea?
After Eritrea’s independence, the MoH started a vaccination program with six traditional vaccines. BCG is a vaccine that prevents pulmonary TB and TB meningitis from mycobacteria. This vaccine is given right after birth. Another vaccine is Diphtheria, given for the whooping cough that can make a person suffer from short breath due to upper respiratory infection. Pertussis is another vaccine that prevents respiratory tract obstruction caused by bordetella pertussis bacteria. These are some of the traditional vaccines that the MoH administered at the beginning.
However, in 2002, the MoH introduced the Hepatitis B vaccine. This vaccine protects against an inflammation of the liver that can be caused by the hepatitis virus. It is a virus that can be transmitted through any type of liquid from our body. In 2008, homophiles influenza type B vaccine was introduced, and it prevents bacteria that cause pneumonia and meningitis. In addition, Rota vaccine was introduced in 2015. This vaccine protects diarrhea that may occur due to a virus called Rota. Forty percent of children with diarrhea who visit hospitals are because of the Rota virus. After we started giving the vaccines to children, the number of kids with diarrhea who visit hospitals went down.
Also, in 2015, the MoH brought in the Pneumococcal Conjugates Vaccine against a virus that causes pneumonia and infections to brain cover, blood circulation, ear drums, joints and bones. So just with one vaccination we are now able to protect a person from all those diseases. However, I want to stress that taking the vaccine at birth doesn’t mean that the child couldn’t suffer from pneumonia at all; there are a lot of reasons that the illness may occur.
Again, we used to give only the measles vaccine, but in 2018 we started to give the Rubella Vaccine as well. Although those two viruses are similar they differ in terms of the part of body they attack. For instance, if a pregnant woman is attacked by this virus, especially in her first trimester, when her pregnancy is under 3 months, the child could be born with abnormalities. We started giving the vaccine along with the national vaccine program for measles and rubella for kids aged 1-15 years. After wards, it continued to be a regular vaccine.
- Recently, there has also been the National Meningitis Vaccine Program.
Although we don’t see much of meningitis cases in our country, we live in a region with countries that suffer from the seasonal attack of meningitis in the equatorial countries. That is why we had to carry out a campaign to give the vaccine for persons with ages ranging from 1 to 30. The vaccine was introduced in 2019. Our future plan is for every child over 1 and six months to be vaccinated.
- What is the overall vaccination coverage like over the last 29 years?
At the beginning, the vaccination coverage of kids under one year of age was less than 10%. This is an extremely low number nationwide. However, today, we are able to get the numbers to over 98%. Needless to say that many campaigns have been carried out to raise the awareness of the society, which paid off greatly. The MoH works hard to reach every child to be vaccinated. Vaccination is a great way to reduce the health problems of the society in general. Again, child mortality has been reduced in the past 29 years. Eliminating polio is one of the many great achievements of the country. Eritrea hasn’t seen polio in over 15 years. Of course, in the past polio vaccinations were given through drops. However, as this virus mutated we brought in another vaccination that can prevent it.
As I said before, Eritrea started with the traditional vaccines and over the 29-year period, we were able to get seven other vaccines. In terms of administering vaccines Eritrea is one of the countries that are exemplary in the world.
- What can you tell us about the upcoming plans of the vaccination program?
We are planning to give the Hepatitis B vaccine right after birth. We are also trying to give the vaccination for the health professionals who work with the patients to protect themselves.
- What are the challenges you are facing because of Covid-19?
It is a deadly virus and for sure everyone should be careful. Nonetheless, we continued to give vaccinations in many regions in the nation by following the MoH guideline to protect everyone. We have been able to achieve so much with the relentless help that the people and government have given us. We are trying to give vaccinations thoroughly and carefully. But with the COVID- 19 pandemic, there are challenges such as transporting vaccines by airplanes as most of the airports are closed. But luckily we have been able to get sufficient vaccines that we might need for the year.