More than one million children and youths up to age 15 in Cambodia have been vaccinated against measles and rubella in a first-time campaign that aims to immunize another three million by the end of December.
Health officials are trying to reach all the country’s children aged nine months to 15 years with the new dual vaccination that tackles the highly contagious measles virus as well as - for the first time in the country - the generally mild rubella (also known as German measles) that can be debilitating for foetuses of infected women.
The Serum Institute of India is providing the combined vaccine at no cost until end of this year, allowing the country to tackle rubella for the first time.
“In other vaccination campaigns, children already received vaccines against measles, hepatitis B or other diseases. But we just introduced rubella this year, because through our disease surveillance, we found many rubella outbreaks,” Sann Chan Soeung, an adviser for the Ministry of Health's national immunization programme, said.
While measles is one of the leading causes of child mortality worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) in the past two years, no cases have been reported in Cambodia, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“While Cambodia has made great progress in eliminating measles thanks to high coverage in a series of successful national measles vaccination campaigns... there still exists a risk of importing measles from other countries which have not been successful in eliminating the disease,” said Denise Shepherd-Johnson, chief of communications for UNICEF in Cambodia, which is supporting the campaign.
If pregnant women contract rubella, their babies are at risk of congenital rubella syndrome (CRS), which often leads to irreversible blindness, deafness and heart ailments.
According to UNICEF, 1,092 rubella cases were confirmed in 2011 based on a one-time survey. Data has been scant on the disease as it is not part of the national disease surveillance system; rubella is to be included as of 2014.
WHO estimates 260 children are born with CRS every year in Cambodia; an estimated 100,000 children globally are born with it annually.
“Approximately 36 percent of cases involved females older than age 15, raising the probability that pregnant women will be infected and their children will be born with congenital rubella syndrome,” Shepherd-Johnson said.
Vaccination campaign “on track”
With one million Cambodian children vaccinated in just over two weeks, the campaign is “on track”, Minister of Health Mam Bunheng said in a recent statement, adding that every primary and secondary school is vaccinating students.
In addition, village health officials are instructing parents and caretakers to bring children who are not enrolled in classes to schools for vaccinations.
According to UNICEF, the GAVI Alliance, a public-private global health partnership, has provided more than US$3 million to the country’s measles-rubella campaign.
The global Measles & Rubella Initiative, a partnership between American Red Cross, the US government’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF, the UN Foundation and WHO, is aiming to eliminate the two diseases in most of the world (five out of six regions as covered by WHO) by 2020.
With GAVI support, a similar measles-rubella campaign is being implemented simultaneously in Ghana, Rwanda and Senegal. The alliance’s goal is to introduce the dual vaccine in 49 countries by 2020.
Cambodia is the first Asian country to introduce it.