Iyiola Oladunjoye is an Erasmus+ scholarship awardee of the Leading International Vaccinology Education (LIVE) programme.
He is also a public health coordinator, with a First-Class Honours degree from the University of Ilorin. In this interview, he spoke on Nigeria’s recent diphtheria outbreak; how vaccine hesitancy linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and misinformation fuel vaccine-preventable diseases in the country, as well as ways to improve immunisation coverage, among others.
What is your assessment of vaccine preventable diseases in Nigeria?
Vaccine preventable diseases are a significant public health issue in Nigeria, as they contribute to high morbidity and mortality rates, especially among children under five years of age.
Low immunization coverage rates, inadequate healthcare infrastructure, and vaccine hesitancy are some of the factors that have contributed to the persistence of these diseases in Nigeria.
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The decline in vaccination rates due to factors such as vaccine hesitancy, resource shortages, and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to a resurgence of preventable diseases such as the ongoing diphtheria outbreak in Nigeria.
This trend has particularly devastating consequences for children and exacerbates existing health inequalities in regions.
To address this challenge, urgent national and international efforts are needed to improve access to routine immunisations through dedicated funding schemes.
These measures can save lives and help prevent future public health crises. There is also the need to ensure that lessons learnt from COVID-19 are incorporated into making our Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) more effective.
Vaccination is undoubtedly one of the most crucial public health interventions that have been implemented in modern medicine. It not only saves lives, but also plays a significant role in preventing the transmission and spread of contagious diseases within communities.
However, its importance goes far beyond these basic benefits. Vaccines improve quality of life and contribute to global economic development.
Nigeria recently had a diphtheria outbreak; what is your take on this?
The recent diphtheria outbreak in Nigeria underscores the crucial significance of ensuring herd immunity which is meant to help us to prevent resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases in trying times which COVID-19 brought forth.
While immunisation against diphtheria is readily accessible on a global scale, Nigeria recorded recent outbreaks of the disease.
This diphtheria outbreak shows the gaps in routine immunisation programme performance in Nigeria where we are still short of the minimum vaccination coverage required (80%) as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
According to the WHO, over 700 suspected cases of diphtheria have been recorded with the majority of them in Kano. So far, over 300 cases have been confirmed with 89 deaths.
Health authorities are working hard to counteract this outbreak; however, we need proactive measures to prevent vaccine-preventable diseases in the 21st century. Before now, an outbreak of diphtheria occurred in Borno State in 2011, which resulted in 98 cases and 21 deaths.
This outbreak was caused by multiple factors, including inadequate vaccination coverage, delayed identification and confirmation of cases, and the lack of available antitoxin and antibiotics for treatment.
Therefore, we need to dig deeper to identify the gaps that led to this recent diphtheria outbreak, such that we could use the lessons learnt to curtail possible future vaccine-preventable diseases outbreaks in the country.
We also need to enhance the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI), ensuring that we are making use of data for decision-making, and targeting states within the country experiencing poor immunisation coverage, so we can amplify vaccine adoption among susceptible populations.
I would highly recommend that those who have not yet received vaccinations against diphtheria comply with the recommended immunisation schedule and obtain proper inoculation without delay.
What do you think is the link between COVID -19 vaccine hesitancy and infodemic, with the recent diphtheria outbreak in the country?
The dissemination of false beliefs and conspiracy theories has had a profound impact on vaccine hesitancy, exacerbating the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases such as diphtheria and COVID-19.
This concerning correlation highlights the urgent need for comprehensive efforts to counter misinformation with reliable data and education about vaccination benefits.
It is crucial that community health workers work towards enhancing public comprehension on the importance of vaccines and routine immunisation, in order to encourage accurate decision-making among individuals.
By reducing vaccine hesitancy through effective communication strategies, such as the use of infographics, dissemination of vaccination facts with local and indigenous languages in outlets such as radio and television shows, we can help prevent future disease outbreaks caused by low immunisation rates.
What is the way forward in improving immunisation coverage and uptake in the country?
Improving immunisation coverage and uptake in Nigeria is a complex issue that demands an intricate multi-pronged approach.
To effectively address the root causes of low vaccine uptake, it requires not only tackling accessibility challenges but also addressing issues related to insufficient healthcare infrastructure, limited awareness about vaccines, and vaccine hesitancy.
It is equally important to raise public awareness on the importance of vaccinations through targeted campaigns aimed at dispelling myths surrounding their efficacy.
Furthermore, countering misinformation about vaccines must be prioritised by leveraging evidence-based research studies as well as utilising trustworthy information channels such as community health workers who can educate individuals regarding best practices for disease prevention via vaccination.
In conclusion, improving immunisation coverage requires sustained efforts from various stakeholders including policymakers; private sector investors; non-governmental organisations, among others.
A comprehensive strategic plan that tackles all aspects relating to vaccine availability should therefore be developed for sustainable improvements in immunisation coverage.
What inspired you to go into further studies in vaccinology?
My passion to address the overwhelming infectious disease burden in Africa through a systemic approach like One Health led me to pursue further studies in vaccinology.
With my First Class Honours, from the University of Ilorin, I have gained extensive experience as both a laboratory scientist and public health coordinator in the fields of environmental management, animal health, and human health.
Also as an Erasmus+ scholarship awardee, I am currently engaged in cutting-edge learning that explores innovative technologies like vaccines and biologics to tackle infectious disease challenges.
My primary area of interest lies within zoonoses and antimicrobial resistance – two areas where African countries are particularly vulnerable, and I believe that vaccine solutions are the most cost-effective and sustainable approach to addressing these exigent issues.
This is why I have centered my career on supporting Africa in augmenting its local capacity to discover and produce vaccines within the continent, in line with the African Union and Africa CDC goals to manufacture and produce 60% of vaccines needed locally by 2040.