Mass polio vaccination campaigns have been taking place in South Sudan for more than a decade before the country became independent in 2011. Thanks to these ongoing efforts funded by the international health community, there have been no reported cases of polio in South Sudan for more than four years. However, with the current focus on eradicating polio worldwide, vaccinations continue to be prioritised, especially since more than 100 cases of polio have been reported in neighbouring Kenya and in nearby Somalia.
To supplement the patchy services provided by South Sudan’s health system, thousands of volunteers are recruited four times a year to conduct polio vaccinations. These volunteers spread out across the country and immunise every child under six they can find. Speaking to the news agency IRIN, the director of immunisation programmes reported that more than 90% of children are reached this way.
However, the director admitted that with regards to other routine vaccinations, immunisation rates among South Sudan’s children are low, mainly due to poor roads, an inadequate number of health clinics and instability in some areas. This means only around 65% of the country’s children are vaccinated against all the common childhood illnesses such as neonatal tetanus, measles, tuberculosis, diphtheria and whooping cough. It’s therefore unsurprising that rates of child mortality are high; in some western regions of South Sudan, one in every ten children will die before they reach their first birthday.
Health officials in South Sudan would like to use the polio volunteer model for other mass vaccinations in the future, such as a measles campaign in 2014. But plans remain contingent on finding the necessary funding. (For the polio programme, the UN’s child agency, UNICEF, provides the vaccines and the World Health Organisation covers the costs of transport and logistics.) In order to finance further immunisation campaigns, the Ministry of Health plans to submit a funding request to the GAVI alliance.
In the meantime, aid agencies in South Sudan, such as the charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), do what they can to boost immunisation efforts. So for example, MSF has been vaccinating Yida camp’s child refugees in the Unity State with a three-part pneumococcal vaccination. The charity hopes this will reduce cases of pneumonia, which spreads easily in the overcrowded conditions of the camp.