Kenya’s policy to vaccinate all newborns against the potentially deadly coxsackievirus known as CV19 has attracted several international praise for its efforts to save lives. But it has also drawn criticism for its severe infringement of privacy and for being a trade-off for the potential revenue of companies.
The policy has been implemented for four years in large parts of the country as a result of a clause in the constitution that guarantees universal immunisation by year 2000.
This attracted praise last week from the president, Mwai Kibaki, who said in a speech at a conference in Nairobi that the policy was not only for the public good but also for the benefit of “the vast number of Kenyans who benefit from free maternal and new born deliveries”.
He asked parliament to “approve the consideration of any legislations requiring the mandatory vaccination of all newborns in the country”.
The minister for health, Anyang’ Nyong’o, described the policy as “a novel departure from established approaches.”
But there have been objections to the new health approach.
In the second article of the constitution, clause six, people have the right to privacy. The lack of anonymity the new policy creates is considered unethical by other sections of the Kenyan society, such as the police.
Last week an article in the daily Standard newspaper said since the government had to invest in thousands of nurses and trained health workers, the policy should be voluntary, which would expose more people to unwanted publicity.
The article noted that about 4,000 Kenyans in the developing world died every day of diseases that could have been prevented through immunisation.
Nyong’o said he was under pressure from all sectors of Kenyan society to implement the programme, even if it meant people’s privacy.
“It is only by demonstrating to Kenyans that the government cares for them, that government will achieve what it needs to,” he said.
He said the government was considering proposing a new Bill of rights that guarantees people their right to privacy and their freedom from state intrusion.
More than 21 million people of Kenya are malnourished, with 13.4 million children among them, most of them in rural areas.
Health ministries in all developing countries often suffer as a result of a lack of funds and health workers, especially in the poorest regions.
But critics are concerned that the policy may help to turn the programme into an inter-governmental concession to “big pharma”, especially given that in many poorer countries, the pharmaceutical companies have the capacity to sell vaccines to the government at cheaper prices and thus support the poor.
Prof Albert Ondowie, the national team leader of the Child Survival Fund in the UK, has said that without the right of the individual to demand affordable medicines there would be a “two-tier health system” in the developing world.
Nyong’o denied the policy meant that the government had to accept anti-malarial drugs at government concession.
But many health workers have testified that they are feeling the pressure of working with a budget that is not enough to handle rising demand.
Prof David Ngugi, a senior lecturer at the School of Nursing and Midwifery in Nairobi, said he had reduced the size of his staff because there was not enough to go around.