Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The hunt for a vaccine

As a journalist working in the developing world, I often find myself writing about creaking healthcare systems, but I have never been personally affected. Until now.

My wife Natalie last week gave birth to our first child, Charlotte Elizabeth. We are lucky enough to be able to afford to got to a private hospital for the delivery, but this did not help us when it came to getting a BCG vaccine, for there were no doses available.

Kenya has the 13th-highest prevalence of Tubercolosis in the world. The WHO reported 140,000 new cases in 2008. Yet it has now been suffering a shortgage of the BCG vaccine for around three months, putting tens of thousands of infants, including my daughter, at risk.

The vaccine is now the holy grail for parents, who are scouring Nairobi looking for it. Favours are being called in and rumours exchanged via text message. Gangs of furtive parents are lurking in doorways outside hospitals and offering wads of cash to passing doctors.

I was told that a private clinic was selling it for 20 euros - shameless profiteering since the vaccine is supposed to be free in Kenya. Nonetheless, I went there ready to pay. When I asked, the receptionist appeared to glance furtively around the room and announced loudly that she had no vaccine. However, she then had me write down my name and number and said she would call if any came in. I couldn't help but wonder if she was being clandestine since they are probably selling vaccine obtained through government channels in a corrupt manner. She hasn't called yet.

I now have another lead, which I am chasing up on. I can only hope that I get there before the other parents who would no doubt elbow me over a high railing or drop kick Charlotte over a fence to make sure they got the vaccine for their child. And who can blame them?

The question has to be asked why there is no vaccine in the country when donors have been pouring money into anti-TB programmes. The answer could lie in incompetence - which would not be a great surprise to anyone who has dealt with Kenyan government officials - or the old problem of corruption. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria has in the past suspended funding to Kenya for disappearing millions of dollars intended to buy ARVs through fraudulent NGOs, and that wasn't even considered a big corruption scandal.

I have been too busy changing nappies and trying to get the vaccine for Charlotte to look into it properly yet, but it wouldn't surprise me to find that somebody is putting children at risk in order to fill their pockets.

1 comment:

aotyehel said...

Congratulations. And good luck with the hunting.