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Saving the lives of Ghana’s young children

One in every four deaths among children under five in Ghana can be attributed to diarrhoea or pneumonia, according to 2008 data from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Young children between the ages of six months and two years old are particularly vulnerable to these illnesses. Diarrhoea is often caused by a rotavirus infection. This leads to an inflammation of the stomach and intestines, followed by dehydration and death in the severest cases. Pneumococcal disease is another killer, causing pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis.

With such high mortality rates from these two diseases (which account for the highest number of deaths after malaria), Reuters reports that health officials in Ghana have decided to introduce not one, but two new vaccinations for young children. From this week, the country will be rolling out a programme to immunise babies against both the rotavirus and pneumococcal disease. For a developing nation, this is a huge undertaking, especially in a tropical country where temperatures regularly exceed 30 degrees Celsius and vaccines have to be kept cool. When vaccine supplies are sent to more remote locations, there is often the logistical difficulty of ensuring they stay refrigerated when rural electricity supplies are unreliable.

Despite the difficulties, the manager of Ghana’s Expanded Programme of Immunisation, Odei Antwi-Agyei, said his country is determined to introduce both new vaccines at the same time. Speaking to Reuters, Mr Antwi-Agyei said that with two preventable illnesses “killing our children”, Ghana was determined to “do things differently”.

Ghana is receiving backing from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), which helps fund vaccination programmes in developing nations. As well as being immunised against rotavirus and pneumococcal disease, babies will also continue to be vaccinated against polio and yellow fever, as well as receiving the pentavalent vaccine (five in one) which protects against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenza type b (the bacteria that causes meningitis, pneumonia and otitis).

Apart from saving thousands of lives, the introduction of the new vaccines should have huge social and economic benefits. For example, Ghana currently spends over 3 million dollars treating children with rotavirus diarrhoea and could save around 1.7 million in treatment costs for this illness alone. In terms of social benefits, studies have found that healthier children are more likely to attend school consistently and learn more effectively. And there are economic benefits for households too, reducing the number of times mothers have to stay at home nursing sick children. But overall, the main goal is to stop children dying from a preventable illness. Health experts estimate that over the next decade, the lives of more than 14,000 children can be saved with these vaccines. As one mother bringing her precious new baby for vaccination simply put it, “now I know he will grow up to be big and strong”.

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