Medical Anthropology

“We must vaccinate more African children!”

They are dismal figues. In Burkina Faso, only 52% of children 12 to 24 months of age have been vaccinated against at least one of the six illnesses targeted by major vaccination campaigns: tuberculosis, polio, measles, whooping cough, tetanus and yellow fever. Barely 32% of the children receive all five vaccines. Not a great result, given the 2004 objectives set by health authorities was 80% for BCG vaccine and 91% for yellow fever.

“Ideally, the objective would be to vaccinate 100% of the children,” says Gilles Bibeau, the Canadian head of a project designed to improve the campaign’s success rate. But the fact is that in Africa, as much as one out of every two children is born outside a hospital setting, often in the remote countryside. This does not simplify the nurses’ and physicians’ job—not to mention the problems of bringing in supplies.”

During one of his last visits to Nouna, a rural region of sub-Saharan Africa, the African studies specialist noted that some clinics’ refrigerators could not properly preserve doses of vaccine (they must be kept at a temperature from 0-4 ° C). With some villages blacked out up 12 hours a day in order to save the energy reserves, one gets a sense of the scope of the problem. In addition, the vaccines are often transported by motorbike.

According to Prof. Bibeau, who teaches medical anthropology at the Université de Montréal and has been visiting Africa for three decades, these problems are not insurmountable. He says a protocol could be proposed by next year to make prevention programs more efficient.

His project, which has just received $500,000 in funding from various humanitarian agencies, brings together researchers from Burkina Faso and Canada. Dr Florent Some, of the Nouna Health Research Centre, is the African head of the study, with researchers Aboubakary Sanou and Bocar Kouyates. Bruce Tapiero of Saint Justine Hospital is also involved in the project. The project will have three stages, including research on the concrete workings of vaccination services, the social, economic and geographical factors potentially associated with parents’ behaviour toward vaccination of their children and the links between parents’ cultural references and their attitudes toward vaccination.

There is one barrier the researchers do not have to contend with. The time when western anthropologists opposed prevention campaigns in developing countries on the grounds that they contaminated the local culture with modern medicine seems to be long gone. “Vaccination is one of epidemiology’s most effective discoveries for reducing mortality in a population,” Mr. Bibeau explains. “The mothers for whose children vaccination is suggested are almost all in agreement. Sadly, though, more than two million children die annually in Africa because they have not been vaccinated.”

Researcher: Gilles Bibeau
Telephone: 514 343-6593
Funding: Canadian International Development Agency

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