At least 15 children in South Sudan died in early May after they were immunized with mishandled vaccine. The country's health minister revealed on Friday that the health workers who vaccinated the children against measles used the same syringe several times without sterilizing it.
Health Minister Riek Gai Kok said that about 300 children received vaccines between May 2 and May 5 in Nacholdokopele village located in the Eastern Equatoria state. Of these, more than a dozen died and another 32 were fortunate to recover after getting sick with symptoms that include vomiting, fever, and diarrhea.
Not Fit To Vaccinate Children
In a news conference, the health minister said that the team that vaccinated the children were not qualified nor trained for the immunization campaign.
A committee of specialists reported that the children died from severe sepsis toxicity because of the contamination of vaccines attributed to repeated use of unsterilized vaccine.
Syringes need to be discarded after single use and reusing may cause them to become contaminated. In the case of the tragic event in Sudan, repeated use of a syringe contaminated the measles vaccine vials and infected the children causing fatal illness.
"An investigation into the cause of the death of 15 children in rural and remote Nachodokopele village, Kauto County in South Sudan by the National Adverse Events Following Immunization (AEFI) Committee, supported by WHO and UNICEF Vaccine safety experts has concluded that severe sepsis / toxicity resulting from the administration of a contaminated vaccine caused the event," WHO said in a statement.
Investigation also found that the vaccination team did not follow the temperature range recommended for storage to preserve the quality of the vaccines. The vaccines were stored in facilities that did not have proper temperature control for four days.
Infectious disease specialist William Schaffner, of Vanderbilt University, said that measles vaccine is heat sensitive, which means that its effectiveness diminishes when it lies around in hot temperature and if there is a delay in administering it.
If the vaccine is contaminated, an improper temperature also gives the bad bacteria that got into the vaccine to multiply, which can help explain the unfortunate deaths of some of the vaccinated children.
"It's like putting them into an incubator. So then the bad germs can actually grow up, and then when you do administer the vaccine, you're administering a much larger dose of the germ itself," Schaffner said.
Measles is a highly contagious disease characterized by high fever, tiny white spots on the inside of the mouth, and bloodshot eyes. No specific treatment is available for the disease and most of those afflicted by it recover between two and three weeks.
Malnourished children and people with reduced immunity though may suffer from serious complications as a result of the disease. Measles can be prevented by vaccination albeit there are challenges in vaccination campaigns, particularly in insecure regions and amid fears of unwanted side effects of immunization.
Risk of contracting measles and other infectious but preventable diseases is very high in South Sudan because of blacklog of unvaccinated children. The country has had significant measles outbreak.