President Omar Bongo has demanded that Gabon improve its dismal record on child immunization, despite complaints by the health minister that there is insufficient money in the budget to finance a comprehensive vaccination programme.
Bongo said on television earlier this month that his government would take measures to ensure that vaccination coverage rates improved dramatically to 80 percent in 2004, a figure last reached in 1990.
Official statistics show that only 17 percent of children under six years old were fully immunised against polio, tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis and measles in 2002. Four percent of Gabonese children received no vaccinations whatsoever.
Pierre Andre Kombila, director-general of the Health Ministry, expressed concern at the steady decline in vaccination coverage.
"One of the consequences of this situation is the rising epidemic of measles and whooping cough that we have seen over the past three years in Gabon," Kolimba told IRIN.
"Tuberculosis, which has become more prevalent as a result of AIDS, and neo-natal tetanus are constantly growing," he added.
Bongo accused doctors of looting supplies from government hospitals for use in their own private clinics.
But Health Minister Faustin Boukoubi complained to the Senate last Friday that since 1998 the health budget had been insufficient to cover even 20 percent of the needs of Gabon's 1.2 million population.
But Bongo said his government was spending too much on curative medicine and not enough on preventive measures.
"The health policy should not just consist of just looking after sick people, it should also keep the population as a whole in good health," Bongo said. He went on to note that "In recent years preventive measures have been hugely disrupted."
The health budget has been raised by 2.5 percent to 35.4 billion CFA (US$68 million) in 2004. Health officials said 442 million CFA ($838,000) was earmarked for vaccination campaigns last year, but that was only a quarter of the amount needed.
The infant mortality rate in Gabon has declined slightly in recent years, but it remains high.
In 2002, 134 out of every 1,000 Gabonese children died before the age of five. That compared with 148 per 1,000 in 1992.