THE outbreak of COVID-19 is reportedly affecting under-five clinic attendance and, by implication, the immunisation of children against life-threatening diseases.
Information from health centres and other sources suggests low attendance of under-five clinics by mothers and fathers in certain localities, therefore making the babies more vulnerable to many preventable and life-threatening diseases.
Early this week, Livingstone district health director Faceroy Nkole noted with concern the reduction in numbers of parents and guardians who are taking their children for under-five clinic.
“What we have noticed is that people have stopped coming to health facilities. They are scared of the virus, rightly so. But they need not stop coming,” Dr Nkole said in an interview with Ndangwa Mwittah in Livingstone.
Well, before Dr Nkole made those sentiments, weeks earlier, I had learnt from some mothers in a WhatsApp group that some mothers were skipping under-five appointments for their babies after Zambia recorded its first two cases of the coronavirus.
This means that the affected infants are being deprived of vaccination against preventable life-threatening diseases such as polio, measles, tetanus, tuberculosis, pneumonia, diarrhoea and diphtheria, among others.
Obviously, what the parents of these babies do not realise is that delaying the babies from receiving age-appropriate vaccines may have catastrophic effects on children’s health.
Mind you, the children are vulnerable to various infections right within our homes, so keeping them indoors, without getting them vaccinated, is quite dangerous.
As a matter of fact, our very homes may be disease vectors because we have various contagious diseases right within our homes and communities. Our very own kith and kin in our homes and friends who visit us could be potential carriers of infectious diseases that could be passed on to our children if they are not vaccinated.
The other danger of skipping under-five clinic appointments is that the growth of affected babies and other under-five children is not being monitored through the monthly weight check-ups.
This means that health care providers cannot provide the necessary interventions to help children who are not growing properly, perhaps owing to poor feeding patterns and unknown health complications.
Dr Nkole allayed fears of possible exposure of babies to COVID-19 in health centres, saying adequate safety measures have been put in place.
“It is very important that parents bring their children because we have put measures in place to protect them and their children,” Dr Nkole pleaded.
For your information, UNICEF had warned us last month that millions of children were at risk of missing life-saving vaccines due to disruptions in immunisation by the COVID-19 pandemic.
UNICEF is actually fearing disastrous outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases around the world because vaccines for polio, measles and other diseases were out of reach for 20 million children in certain parts of the world way before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Well, I am not a clinician, but medical experts tell us that vaccines are good for babies because they protect them from diseases that are common in the formative years and capable of curtailing their lives prematurely.
This is why over the years, mothers and fathers alike have been flocking to health centres to have their babies inoculated because there is scientific evidence that vaccines are good and safe for babies.
Sadly, as people remain locked up in their homes to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, scepticism is also growing among them about the safety of under-five clinics for their children.
It is a pity that some parents are actually inciting their colleagues not to take their children for under-five check-up, claiming it is not safe, without checking the safety measures that health centres have put in place.
One lady remarked on a WhatsApp forum I am on that she will wait until it is safe to take her baby for under-five check-up because health facilities are not safe places at the moment, considering the growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in Zambia.
Some mothers agreed with her position, obviously, oblivious to the public health threat this poses, if for instance we were later to have outbreaks of diseases we have eliminated like polio, and those we have almost eradicated like measles.
However, the other women on the forum responded that it was dangerous to keep unvaccinated babies in our homes, especially with the outbreak of COVID-19, which affects the respiratory system in its victims.
The ladies commented in view of the fact that some of the vaccines that babies are given do actually protect them from life-threatening respiratory infections.
Obviously, this is not to say that the vaccines could protect infants against the coronavirus, but we felt this is a critical time to boost the immunity of babies against any common diseases they may be vulnerable to.
In any case – now this is my view – COVID-19 patients are not spread out in all health facilities but are rather being treated in designated centres.
This means that other health services – including under-five, family planning and antenatal clinics – should continue running as usual.
All that the Ministry of Health needs to do is to enforce social distancing measures in under-five clinics and ensuring that health workers are given adequate personal protective equipment.
The clinics should be adequately sanitised, and by saying so, I am not implying that health facilities are not properly cleaned and disinfected.
Perhaps health centres should go an extra mile in sanitising their environments to re-assure doubting parents and guardians.
And maybe for now, under-five clinics should avoid those salter scales (cotton bags) for weighing babies until the battle against the coronavirus has been won. I am saying so because it is difficult to sanitise the cotton bags after they have been used by one patient.
I think ordinary scales for adults could do for now. For example, at our local government clinic, ordinary scales are being used to weigh children by first checking the weight of the mother or father and later asking the parent to stand on the scale with the baby.
The difference between the initial and second weight recorded is the actual weight of the baby.
In a nutshell, there is no need for mothers and fathers to stop taking children for under-five clinics because there is scientific evidence that vaccinated and well-nourished children stand a better chance of living healthy lives.
Vaccines are also known to prevent or ameliorate the effect of common diseases that cause child mortality.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in Zambia shouldn’t put other health services to a halt.
In that vein, the Ministry of Health should do all that it could to encourage parents and guardians to continue taking their children for under-five check-ups.
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