Behind every number

Children come in masses to our vaccination sites which have been placed all over the region. They stand in the shade of mango trees, in empty buildings, in schools.

Children come in masses to our vaccination sites which have been placed all over the region. They stand in the shade of mango trees, in empty buildings, in schools.

We walk there, we travel by car and motorcycle, we go by boat, we paddle and we ride bikes. They come because we have engaged local people, village elders, priests and other key employees. We knock doors and announce our immunisation campaign with a megaphone, as well as on the radio.

All this to reach as many children between six months and 10 years as possible.

Measles vaccine © Thomas Silfverberg

This kind of campaign is not uncomplicated. The live, but attenuated, measles virus contained in the vaccine must be kept cold all the time to survive and be effective. It is not easy to achieve a cold chain of vaccines from France to the smallest villages out in the Congolese countryside.

The vaccines must be kept between two and eight degrees Celsius from the time they are purchased in Europe, until it is injected in the subcutaneous skin of the child's left upper arm. And here it is 38-39 degrees Celsius in the shade.

Vaccine being kept cool © Thomas Silfverberg

The children must first meet a registrar who writes down their information, and stamps their individual vaccination card. The children are usually accompanied by their mother, sister, brother or sometimes by their father. They have their beautiful young eyes open, watching everything observantly.

It is definitely worrying that other children scream around them. Most children understand there is something rather terrible awaiting them.

A child receiving the measles vaccination © Thomas Silfverberg

Older children may have been through this before and they are not as tense. They queue and wait their turn. They are almost always quiet. Their eyes attentively follow all the movements of the vaccinators, when they pull up the diluent, mixing it with the vaccine and preparing the syringe.

The child is put on the lap and held firmly. For younger children, this is really worrying and the weeping and crying often begins here. The injection itself is swiftly and decisively performed. Then it's over, and the tears are wiped away.

The images of many of these children linger. The somewhat shy, but at the same time interested, children have a certain charm that really gets to me.

Their faces and eyes keeps popping up in front of me when I least expect them to. I think there is something very important right there with these pictures. Interventions and campaigns in health care are often sketched with numbers and figures.

A child waits to be vaccinated © Thomas Silfverberg

Myself, I could write how many we have vaccinated here, what percentage of the estimated targeted population we have reached. But for me this is of secondary importance (and with all due respect, do not think I'm trying to hide something here - our numbers are good).

Behind every number there is an individual child. A child with a shy smile and a pair of observing eyes that watch your every movement. Some screaming and wailing and gnashing of teeth. All the things that belong to life, concentrated into just a few minutes.

The epitome of why we should care for each other, why we should bother at all, why we should be doing what we can.

There is no cure for the measles. What we do in the measles hospital is treat its complications and the diseases that sometimes emerge when the measles virus affects the body.

The only specific, and also effective, thing we can do is to vaccinate the children.

Prevention is the only cure. It is with the vaccinations that we really can save lives.

Now we close the measles hospital in Mulongo. The number of new cases has decreased since a couple of weeks and now that the vaccination campaign is completed, they will soon cease completely.

What awaits the team, I do not know at the time of writing. But certainly we will follow the epidemic until the end of it. 

Read more about measles