In Feb. 2023, Ghana was left vulnerable to the disturbing news of vaccine shortage nationwide.
As a result, the Ghana Business News, in its March 2, 2023, online publication, reported that ten out of the 16 administrative regions in the country were battling with the shortage. Several other media reports further suggested that health staff within the affected regions continue to turn away nursing mothers with their babies (due to these critical routine immunisation vaccines) during this period of shortage. Some of the media publications that announced the shortages can be seen here, here and here.
Almost six months after the disturbing announcement of the vaccine shortage, DUBAWA analyses the phenomenon in depth, exploring the repercussions on the general health and well-being of the citizens, particularly the most vulnerable children.
According to the World Health Organization, a vaccine or vaccination is “a simple, safe, and effective way of protecting you against harmful diseases before you come into contact with them.” Vaccination helps build the immune system, which the WHO says has helped prevent at least 3.5-5 million deaths yearly.
Given the instrumental role vaccines and immunisation play in the health and well-being of humans, the nation was alarmed at the news of vaccine shortages across the country.
Shortly after the announcement of the shortage of vaccines in Ghana, the Director General of Ghana Health Service, Dr Kuma-Aboagye, assured that the vaccines would be procured in two weeks, but the promise failed to materialise within the stipulated period.
On March 7, 2023, almost two weeks after the GHS assurance, another promise came from Health Minister Kwaku Agyemang-Manu, who promised to deliver the vaccines in a few more weeks.
Three days after his pronouncement, Ghana received the first consignment promised by the Ministry of Health.
Was the consignment enough?
Even though the government finally took delivery of some vaccines, the narrative changed from shortage of vaccines to adequacy and sustainability. This became the new subject of interest.
Checks by DUBAWA at some health facilities suggest that three of the 13 vaccines used for routine child immunisation were reportedly in short supply. The three critical vaccines are (Measles-Rubella, Oral Poliomyelitis vaccine (OPD), and Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG).
DUBAWA discovered some health centres, especially in the Upper West Region, have received inconsistent allocation of vaccines over the last six months (from March to Sept. 2023). Some CHPS facilities, including Wa Urban Health Center (H/C), Jang H/C, Dondoli, Kanyini, and Tibane CHPS, still faced a shortage of one or two of the three vaccines from time to time.
How did mothers and children cope during the shortage period?
DUBAWA investigation reveals that some children do not get immunised on their expected dates due to shortages. Their mothers, just like before, were asked to go back and return on later dates. Some shared their experiences with the team.
“I was given a scheduled date to come, but when I revisited, I was told to go and come back later because the vaccine wasn’t in yet. Honestly, the time wastage alone is a worry; talk less of the implications of delayed immunisation on my child. My baby keeps falling sick now and then. But I don’t know if that has anything to do with the delayed immunisation,” one of the mothers, Hajia Hanifatu, expressed.
“I don’t think the vaccine shortage is completely resolved because the last time I visited the health facility with my baby girl, I was made to go and return the following week. But my girl is lucky to have up-to-date routine immunisation records. We are left with the 9th month injection. I just pray we get it when the time is due,” another mother, Asata Awudu, shared.
DUBAWA cross-checked with ten Health facilities within Wa municipal, Nadowli-Kaleo and Sissala West districts to ascertain the veracity of this situation and discovered that only some of the centres in question were affected. While some had adequate stock of the vaccines, others were in short supply, especially from the last week of Aug. to the first week of Sept. 2023.
The impact of the vaccine shortage
The impact of the shortage of vaccines on the health of citizens, especially children, cannot be underestimated. In the heat of the shortage, the Health Minister said:
“The Ministry of Health has been seriously concerned about the shortage of some childhood vaccines and their effect on the Vaccination Programme in the country. This is a major source of worry for the ministry, partners, caregivers and population. We are aware of the implications of the shortages, including disease outbreaks and effects on child survival. The government is deploying all efforts and resources to fast-track the delivery of the routine child immunisation vaccines in short supply into the country.”
DUBAWA then engaged the Upper West Regional Director of Health Services, Dr Damien Punguyire, to understand the mode of vaccine supply to health centres and the health directorate’s position on the inconsistent vaccine delivery within some regional health facilities.
The health director said no critical shortage has yet been brought to his attention. He admitted that an adequate stock of vaccines was received from the national hub to counter the shortage at the time but not to forestall any further future shortages; hence, claims of new shortages cannot be completely disregarded.
Dr Punguyire, however, clarified that no backlog of immunisation cases from the nationwide shortage is evident in the region. According to him, greater efforts were put in by health staff during the mop-up vaccination period to clear all the backlogs except for instances where the mothers have relocated to new environments and, therefore, cannot be traced to their new locations.
He also admitted to occasional shortages of the three vaccines since denoting their nationwide shortage in March. Still, he said measures have been streamlined to ensure affected children usually get them back immediately after buffer stocks are replenished in the region.
The director, who prioritised this subject as one of his key interest areas, again explained that the supply chain of childhood vaccines to the various health centres in the region takes a “push and pull” dimension. Hence, where there are shortages, health staff are encouraged to demand or request supply from the directorate immediately (the PULL) and not wait for routine supplies to centres (the PUSH).
He tasked health staff to be proactive and activate the process with distress requests to the directorate in critical situations. He also urged that they go to nearby facilities with adequate stock to address minor shortages. He admonished them to refrain from turning mothers and caregivers away in such difficult times whilst calling on the general public not to panic.
Government commitment to secure adequate stock of routine childhood immunisation vaccines has been evident. However, the availability of the three critical vaccines, Measles-Rubella, Oral Poliomyelitis vaccine (OPD), and Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG)at some health centres in the Upper West Region has been inconsistent for six months. In effect, occasional shortages recurred but went unnoticed because it was barely reported on mainstream media.
This report was produced under the Department of Communications Studies, University of Ghana and DUBAWA’s project aimed at improving fact-checking competency and practice among Ghanaian media organisations with support from UNESCO IPDC.