Following the outcry after many Lesotho children got sick with measle symptoms shortly after being vaccinated by the government, on Thursday health minister Dr Molotsi Monyamane downplayed the public’s concerns, which he labelled petty propaganda antics employed only because Lesotho was headed for elections.
“It’s unfortunate that this particular vaccination campaign is being associated with government performance! We are going to the remote areas of the country next week to deliver the same services,” Monyamane said.
The minister argued presented photographs of children in various stages of reaction to the vaccine were all fake, he said: “I am surprised to see pictures of children burnt with hot water, those with mouth thrush, pictures taken from textbooks that I have come across in my studies being produced to back up this claim. Some of the children depicted are not even Basotho, all this is meant to scare other people from getting the vaccine.”
“Proof should be forwarded that these pictures were captured from our health centres where we said affected children should go. I don’t use pictures as proof, I am not a sangoma.”
The minister did say his ministry was yet to investigate the matter and do a thorough research.
Challenged to resign together with his staff for negligent and dangerous conduct leading to the outbreak Monyamane said he would make an "informed decision".
The health ministry refuted all suppositions that the vaccines were defective, saying to reach its destination country a vaccine has to meet certain standards – in which the ministry is assisted by Unicef and WHO in relation to purchase and ensuring standards are kept. “As a country, we don’t test vaccines upon arrival.”
Announcements prior to the campaign were also silent on side-effects, while some children were vaccinated without parental consent and sometimes no reference made to their personal health record booklets.
The minister went further to deny a reported death of one child in the northern parts of the country, attributing the death to “visible signs of malnutrition”.
Legal practitioner advocate Makhetha Motšoari told African Independent that on Thursday alone he consulted with more than 20 parents seeking direction on holding the health ministry to account for the mishap. “I also received several phone calls from around the country seeking appointments for consultation on the same matter,” Motšoari said.
In addition, human rights lawyer Lineo Tsikoane confirmed 40 parents approached her office the same day for assistance.
In 2016, The Namibian newspaper reported parents of several babies sued the country’s health ministry after their children died following MMR vaccination. It reported 21 babies countrywide died since 2006 after receiving the vaccines which are normally administered to children at six weeks and 12 weeks in what was termed ‘sudden infant death syndrome’.
Monir Islam, WHO representative in Namibia at the time, claimed none of the deaths had been caused by the vaccination but The Namibian obtained the death certificate of one of the children, which stated the death was attributed to the vaccination.A salvo of disease-causing microbes is usually not a threat to an athletic young boy growing in the dusty villages of Lesotho, where it’s common cause that children deflect exposure to numerous harmful elements without being vaccinated.
But when Tlotliso Rantšeli (11), a vibrant healthy boy landed in a village clinic with measles symptoms after receiving a shot during a national Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination campaign, his became a case among hundreds of a new phenomenon countrywide.
The boy arrived home from school complaining of a severe headache and swelling on both arms. His mother was unperturbed and ordered him to bed with two painkilling tablets, assuming this was simply an allergic reaction.
With his condition worsening, he was rushed to a nearby village private health facility where the mother was told the boy carried symptoms of the dreaded disease – measles.
“I could not believe it, because just some weeks ago these children were vaccinated against the disease at school, this was a nationwide campaign that was even announced in the media,” said Mpolai Rantšeli, the visibly irked mother.
She was not aware the boy’s case was just one in many presented at different health centres around the country which parents associated with the ongoing MMR vaccination.
The MMR vaccine contains live viruses that have been attenuated: they stimulate the immune system but do not cause disease in healthy people. It protects children against the three diseases.
At the Ha-Tšiu private clinic in a village just north of the capital Maseru the mother presented her son as possibly suffering from a bout of flu or allergies, but the attending nurse identified symptoms similar to those of several other children treated there.
“I was taken aback because I hadn’t heard of this outbreak of a reaction to the MMR vaccine,” Rantšeli said. The boy was given an injection and antibiotics and sent home, but the symptoms remained – leading the mother to decide on trying another clinic.
Media outlets in the capital were flooded with calls from concerned parents seeking advice, since reports of ailing children continue to rise, with children showing a mild form of measles – including a rash, high temperature, loss of appetite and a general feeling of being unwell.
Parents questioned the authenticity of the vaccine used while others wanted ethical and professional conduct of the entire vaccination process audited, arguing research has shown that among others the vaccine should not be given to people who are immunosuppressed as a result of drug treatment or any underlying illness.
This, they said, is based on the reality of Lesotho’s HIV/Aids prevalence rate, which implies a large number of parents have in the recent past been diagnosed HIV positive and are using antiretrovirals (ARVs) .
“This being the case, there’s a likelihood most of these children’s parents could have been using ARVs while pregnant, and this vaccination was surely a homocidal move if not all areas were covered by the ministry of health,” another mother said at the Ha-Tšiu clinic.
Research shows this is because the weakened viruses in the vaccine could replicate too much and cause serious infection in recipients, and such recipients include babies whose mothers have had immunosuppressive treatment while pregnant or breastfeeding.
The 2014 Demographic and Health Survey reveals a quarter of Lesotho’s adults aged 15-49 years are infected with HIV.
A medical doctor at the Queen Elizabeth II hospital, Dr Thabelo Makhupane, responded their concern had only been on the recipient children and not their parents. She could only say “we check their HIV status to determine if their immune system can stand the vaccine.”