15 South Sudan children have been reported dead after receiving their vaccinations for measles in the rural town of Kapoeta.

The campaign which took place in early May was part of a join initiative by the South Sudanese government and UNICEF. UNICEF provided all the vaccines and the World Health Organisation (WHO) offered some training in how to administer the vaccines.

Mishandling of vaccines and inexperienced personnel

South Sudanese government announced that all the children who were killed were less than five years old. A joint statement by UNICEF and WHO noted the cause of death to be severe sepsis and toxicity. Aside from these fatalities, 32 other children suffered fever, vomiting and diarrhoea from the 300-person vaccination campaign, but later recovered.

Reports from this incident have revealed that the children were vaccinated with the same unsterilised syringe throughout the four-day campaign and the vaccines were left unrefrigerated. In addition, it was reported that children as young as 12 years old were administering the vaccine.

“The team that vaccinated the children in this tragic event were neither qualified nor trained for the immunisation campaign,” said Riek Gai Kok, South Sudan's health minister.

“Untrained people were administering the vaccine,” commented William Moss, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health professor and head of epidemiology at the International Vaccine Access Centre.

“The measles vaccine needs to be diluted. One has to take a liquid and mix it with the dry form, and that's where the error occurred.”

“The [WHO and UNICEF] report says they used the same syringe to reconstitute the vaccine [instead of discarding it after single use]. If that vaccine vial gets contaminated with a toxin or bacteria, then gets injected into a child, that's what causes disease and death,” he added.

The South Sudan government said it is currently setting up a commission to investigate who is responsible for this disaster and whether the victims’ families will be compensated.

Measles risk still extremely high in South Sudan

UNICEF is running this measles vaccination campaign to target more than two million children across South Sudan, which is the world’s youngest country, one of the poorest and is in the midst of a civil war. Measles has accounted for 134,200 deaths globally in 2015, according to the WHO.

South Sudan country director for the WHO, Abdulmumini Usman said that even after the organisation became aware of the deaths, the measles vaccination campaign continued across the country except in Kapoeta.

“This campaign is lifesaving,” he said.

The United Nations released an official statement depicting the “extremely high” risk of measles in the country despite various efforts. Last year, United Nations data documented 2,294 measles cases and 28 fatalities in South Sudan. So far this year, 665 people have contracted the disease there and one has succumbed to it. MIMS

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