Kampala — Ugandan children are going unimmunized as the country grapples with persistent and widespread vaccine shortages, the result of insufficient funds and inefficient procurement and supply systems, officials say.
"We are getting reports and calls from all the districts about the stock-outs of all types of anti-immunization vaccines. They don't have anti-TB [tuberculosis] vaccines, anti-tetanus, polio [vaccines]. The ministry is faced with inadequate funding for most of our programmes," Asuman Lukwago, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health, told IRIN.
"The current major problem on the vaccines is the distribution issue. We are working around the clock to have the problem solved and sorted out immediately."
Most of the health centres across the country are facing critical shortages of vaccines to protect against tuberculosis, polio, tetanus, diphtheria, rotavirus and pneumonia, putting children at risk of largely preventable diseases.
Health officials now fear these frequent shortages could prevent mothers from bringing their children in for immunizations.
"You can't [ask] mothers to move to health facilities three to four times and they don't find vaccines. This practice discourages some of them to go back to the hospitals," said Huda Oleru Abason, chairperson of the Parliamentary Forum on Immunization.
In 2011, the government of Uganda shifted the procurement of vaccines and drugs from the Uganda National Expanded Programme on Immunization (UNEPI), under the Ministry of Health, to the National Medical Stores (NMS), an autonomous government corporation.
The move was intended to inject efficiency into the country's drug procurement system, but the drug shortages have continued.
Yet officials at NMS are blaming the shortages on late requisitions for vaccines by UNEPI. The procurement of drugs is the responsibility of NMS.
"Placing of orders is not the responsibility of NMS, it's [the job of] UNEPI," Dan Kimosho, a spokesperson at the NMS, told IRIN. "So if they don't put request in time or under-quantified for the supplies, it's our problem. Our responsibility is to procure, store and deliver the requested vaccines.
We can't begin delivering vaccines to districts and health [facilities] if the orders have not been placed to us. We have the competency to deliver the requested drugs and vaccines."
An estimated 48 percent of children under age five in Uganda are either unimmunized or under-immunized, meaning they do not complete their immunization schedules, according to the 2011 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey.
Uganda has recently experienced a decline in immunization levels, in part due to inadequate funding, health staff shortages and [parents']poor adherence to vaccination schedules.
In April 2013, the government launched a countrywide rotavirus and pneumococcal vaccination program targeting over 1.7 million children.
In an interview with IRIN, Director General of Health Services Ruth Achieng noted that, "Uganda is not doing very well in [its] immunization programme... We don't want our children to die from preventable diseases. We need to act now. Otherwise, we shall get an outbreak of polio and tetanus."
Uganda's budget support for the Expanded Programme on Immunization, EPI, - which had been hailed for increased vaccination coverage between 2000-2007 - decreased by more than half in recent years, falling from 7.7 percent in the 2006-2007 financial year to 3.6 percent in 2009-2010.
Officials say the government has plans to revitalize the country's immunization programs.
"We have worked out the revitalization plan, and if implemented well, we shall be able to change the low status of immunization in Uganda.
The government has mobilized some funds and, with support from GAVI, everything is revisable. We are going to embark on [an] aggressive campaign to ensure there are no vaccine stock-outs in the country and ensure all the children are immunized," the Ministry of Health's Lukwago said.
There is also a legal push to improve immunization. An immunisation bill currently pending in parliament will make it illegal for parents and guardians to fail to have their children immunized. It also seeks to punish health officials who fail to offer immunization services to children.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]