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Ebola Vaccine Stigma Impacts Measles and Polio Campaigns

This article was first published on Ebola Deeply.

By Ebola Deeply

Liberia's Lofa county, which skirts the border with Guinea, was buckling under the strain of Ebola a few months ago. Now there have been no cases for 90 days, but as Kolubah Akoi reports, news of the Ebola vaccine trial in Monrovia has led parents to pull their children from a polio vaccination campaign.

Even though the Ebola vaccine trials are taking place in Monrovia, a day's drive from Lofa county, parents in this corner of the country are worried. Some say they've heard that the trial vaccines–developed by the National Institutes of Health/GlaxoSmithKline and, separately, NewLink Genetics/Merck–could lead to new infections. Others with overactive imaginations accuse the “white people” of using the trials to reinfect the nation with Ebola, in a money-making plot worthy of the silver screen.

Either way, rumors spread fast in Liberia, and in Lofa many parents are heeding the stories and refusing to let their children take part in vaccination campaigns against polio and measles. Although polio is now rare in Liberia, health authorities have warned that the disease could re-emerge if vaccinations do not continue. And in early February, an outbreak of measles was reported farther south, in Margibi county. A previous outbreak in 2011 infected more than 100 people.

At Telewoyan Hospital in Voinjama, Lofa's capital, I spoke with the chief medical director, Zuannah Kamara. He told me that although there are no plans to administer the Ebola trial vaccines in Lofa, rumors of that nature have already spread.

"My nurses are informing me that the influx of parents bringing their children for other vaccinations has dropped, and some are even refusing to have their children vaccinated against polio and measles," Dr. Kamara said. "Maybe their people are calling them from Monrovia and telling them something about vaccinating their children right now."

Dr. Kamara added that there have been no cases of Ebola since October 2014, but that people in Lofa are still terrified of the disease. It infected at least 623 people among a population of 300,000.

Mohammed Kanneh, a young man who lives in Voinjama, told me he is angry about the Ebola trial vaccine. He has not had the educational opportunity to study the science behind vaccines, nor has he received public information about how they work. He believes the Ebola trial vaccine poses a risk to public safety.

"We have had enough of this Ebola madness, and never want to be associated with anything that has to do with Ebola," Kanneh said.

As I was leaving the hospital, I ran into a lady in a red dress. Carrying her child on her back, she was running – fast. I asked her why. She had brought her young son to the hospital for his polio vaccine, but had received a call from her husband on her cellphone. "It's too dangerous," her husband told her, concerned that there might be a link between the trial Ebola vaccine and the polio one.

Ebola might be over in Lofa county, but there is still a long way to go to rebuild the trust between health authorities, international actors and the people who live here.

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[Photo courtesy of UNMEER and IFRC

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