UGANDA: Immunize against polio or face the law
The polio vaccine is administered on a child: Uganda has in the past three months battled a wild polio virus that allegedly entered the country from neighbouring Southern Sudan - file photo
KAMPALA, 5 June 2009 (IRIN) - Ugandan authorities are planning to use the law to rein in parents who have not immunized their children, as part of efforts to curb the spread of the polio virus, an official said.
"We are considering resorting to the law to compel parents to take their children for immunization," health ministry spokesman Paul Kaggwa said.
"We can charge parents under the Public Health Act, the Penal Code Act and the Children’s Statute. Refusing to immunize a baby infringes its right to health and at the same time exposes other children to infections," he added.
Uganda has in the past three months battled a wild polio virus that allegedly entered the country from neighbouring Southern Sudan. So far, 10 children have been crippled in the northern region.
These include seven in Amuru District, one each in Pader and Moyo, and another in Bundibugyo, western Uganda.
To stem the contamination, the health ministry has announced a nationwide drive targeting 6.2 million children. The exercise integrates vaccination against measles, which has also shown signs of spreading in the country.
"With the 10 cases so far recorded, we now know that up to 2,000 children have been exposed if not already infected and we want to reverse this trend," the head of the immunization programme in the health ministry, Prossy Mugyenyi, told IRIN on 4 June.
Despite the initiative, however, some parents are reluctant to take their children for immunization due to a false belief that vaccines are dangerous, even after assurances from the health ministry and the World Health Organization to the contrary.
Similar superstitions have scuppered efforts to rid Nigeria of polio, after parents claimed the jabs were a plot to kill or sterilize their children.
"To get rid of childhood diseases like polio and measles, we need to achieve 100 percent coverage," Kaggwa said. "We are now getting many measles cases due to low immunization coverage."
Uganda last conducted an immunization campaign for measles in 2003, following a deadly outbreak. At least 13 million were immunized, leading to a reduction in the measles mortality rate of 91 percent, according to the health ministry.
To get rid of childhood diseases like polio and measles, we need to achieve 100 percent coverage
The current immunization drive first targeted children in 29 districts considered to be at high risk of contracting wild polio virus immediately after it was identified in Amuru.
However, health officials said, the response from parents has been poor.
Mugyenyi blamed porous borders that allow free movement between Uganda and its neighbours as the trigger for the new outbreak, recorded only three years after WHO certified the country polio-free in October 2006.
"The international community needs to come out and support Southern Sudan to synchronise its immunization programmes with those of her neighbours," she added. "Unless the reservoir is handled we shall continue to suffer from this virus."
Immaculate Kemigisha, a paediatric nurse in Kampala, said many infected people did not get symptoms immediately yet excreted the virus, thereby facilitating the transmission of infection.
"The virus enters the body through the mouth when a person takes food, water or a drink that has been contaminated," she said.
The polio virus invades nerve cells in the brain or spinal cord, paralysing muscles. When muscles that control swallowing and breathing are affected, the child's limbs, legs and trunk are rendered flaccid.
Globally, polio has diminished although it still occurs in areas of the Indian sub-continent and in west and central Africa, according to health experts.