Nationwide Jab Drive: Behind the Scenes
By Dilanthi Jayamanne
We will have to perhaps gently remind ourselves of the all-time purpose of getting vaccinated in relation to the present context where even in this tiny island the daily death toll rose above 200 during August and new cases of COVID-19 being diagnosed each day topped 3,000. As the World Health Organisation (WHO), explains it: “Vaccines train the immune system to recognise the targeted virus and create antibodies to fight off the disease without getting the disease itself. After vaccination, the body is ready to fight the virus if it is later exposed to it, thereby preventing illness.
Most people who are infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, develop an immune response within the first few weeks.” The global health body says that people who have already infected with SARS-CoV-2 should still get vaccinated unless advised against it by their medical practitioners. Even if you’ve had a previous infection, the vaccine acts as a booster that strengthens the immune response since there have also been instances of people being infected with COVID -19 a second time. It makes getting vaccinated even more important, the Organisation said.
Sri Lanka’s progress
Sri Lanka topped a list of 10 countries with the most COVID-19 vaccinations during two consecutive weeks. According to the listing the island was able to vaccinate 11.6 per cent of its population by the end of first week of September 2021 arriving ahead of countries like Australia, New Zealand, Israel and Cuba. The country received a total 23,435,984 of AstraZeneca, Sinopharm, Sputnik V, Pfizer and Moderna from 28 January till 06 September 2021 – and according to Chairman State Pharmaceutical Corporation (SPC), Dr. Prassanna Gunasena more doses are scheduled to reach the country. It includes the four million doses of the PfizerBioNTech vaccine which the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) are looking forward to initiate the vaccination of children.
Statistics of the local Epidemiological Unit
By 8 September 2021, Sri Lanka had been able to vaccinate 104.9 per cent of its over 30-year population with the first dose of the COVID vaccine. Of them, 83.4 per cent have been fully vaccinated. The Epidemiology Unit giving a District breakdown of its vaccination coverage of the population above 30 years of age has noted that in Matale District 104.2 per cent of them have received the first dose while 103.2 per cent of them have been given the second dose. 100.4 per cent of this age group population in the Kandy District have received the first dose while 81.6 per cent have been given both doses. 32.2 per cent of the 20 to 29-year age group which was squeezed in quite suddenly to the vaccination drive which was focused completely on the inoculation of the above 30s and the over 60s population in the country have been given the first dose while 12.2 per cent of this total have been given both doses of the COVID vaccine.
In the midst of all this it would be ideal to take a peek into how well the vaccination programme of the abovementioned age group had fared in the Hambantota District which perverted the already ruffled inoculation drive in the country. 67.5 per cent of the 20 to 29 age group have been given the first dose while 15.6 per cent have been given both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The 20 to 29 age group at Hambantota which a majority feign ignorance was the main focus of this vaccination drive. Splurging preferential treatment, the muchclamoured Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was administered in this District whereas the remaining Districts were being given ‘good old Sinopharm’ as has been administered amongst the other two age groups that have got the COVID jab. In Colombo, 54 per cent of this age group have been given the first dose while 23.7 per cent and been given the second dose within this period. The vaccination of the 20 to 29 years commenced in early September (2 September 2021). But till date the Epidemiology Unit has been unable to give a similar District-wise breakdown of the vaccination progress of the over 60s population.
Dissatisfaction and Frustration
The ‘cold war’ (simmering) between the ‘titans’ for a better hold of the current vaccination drive in the island’s battle against SARS CoV-2 may not be visible to the naked eye. Health service and our war heroes whilst engaged in control and prevention work of which inoculation plays a key role amidst all other preventive regulations released by the Health Ministry have been vying for the upper hand in the procedure. As has been said by the President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science Sri Lanka (CMLSSL), Ravi Kumudesh, the meticulously organised vaccination of the military which bears a ‘carnival like atmosphere,’ has been pitched against the chaotic, almost humiliating claustrophobic vaccination by the health services.
Fanning the simmering coals the Sri Lanka Army was allegedly made the unofficial custodians of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab imported as well as donated to Sri Lanka by the United States. Perhaps there are some who feel that it serves the State health service right that they have been also unofficially forced to play a supporting role in the vaccination saga where even the vaccination strategies prepared pre with precision first by the Committee Chaired by Senior Presidential Advisor, Lalith Weerathunga and subsequently by the GMOA spoke of vaccination which was to be administered according to a priority listing. Both parties prioritised frontline health workers engaged in the COVID-19 battle, the above 60s age group and those with comorbidity was to be succeeded by the over 30 age group, pregnant mothers and the population in schools and universities.
But the poor ‘well-organised’ vaccination strategy has been bent this way and that when it pleased the Government and the health service. First it was bent to accommodate MPs, then it included not only the frontline health workers but also their families, chauffeurs and domestics. So why is it so unpalatable if the Government or some unseen but very much present hand twists it a little more scattering that well organised priority listing which the GMOA keeps harping about and squeeze in the 20-29 age group for vaccination.
‘Oh! These vaccines! (with due respect to Boney M’s Rasputin) While holding positions at various COVID-19 prevention committees our experts have seen it fit to dramatically step down citing ‘for personal reasons’ – claiming that they either cannot be held responsible for what may happen with regard to prevention and control work being carried out, or that they feel that they cannot contribute much more to the committee. Among the first to resign was Immunologist, Prof. Neelika Malavige who stepped down from the Independent Vaccine Advisory Expert Committee of the National Medicinal Regulatory Authority (NMRA).
She is the Professor in Microbiology at the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine of Medical Sciences Faculty at Sri Jayewardenepura University who has time and again shed light on the virus and its variants. Her resignation also brought to light that Prof. A. Pathmeswaran at the Faculty of Medicine of University of Kelaniya too had resigned from the particular committee in June this year. Earlier this week Consultant Community Physician at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID), Dr. Ananda Wijewickrema and the Consultant Anaesthetist of the Colombo South Hospital, Dr. Asoka Gunaratne stepped down from the COVID Prevention Technical Committee also citing personal reasons.
Of course, one may say that the village Siridasa and the Sumanawathie may not care less if these experts with ‘tonnes’ of experience in their field of work quit some committees in the city but it is unfortunate that these are people who are responsible for the lives of the masses. They make their contributions not only in their hospitals donning smocks or scrubs but also by extending their expertise in this case to battle the coronavirus which has claimed the lives of over 10,864 and the patient numbers rose up to 477,363 counting.
The public is left to speculate as to what their reasons for resigning may have been and deduce that it was probably the current vaccination trend started from a District which was not in the priority list using a limited and highly demanded vaccine which was currently being used to inoculate those leaving for overseas for jobs and higher studies. With Health Ministry officials calling for these officials to please reconsider their decisions and return to those committees, they should at least reconsider their decisions to remain mum and reveal the reason behind their decisions to quit. It would be far better, than washing their hands off. At least then the ‘experts who quit’ may be able to make an impact by revealing what went so wrong that made them decide on stepping down. All the world may be a stage but there is no need for those who are suppose to look out for the wellbeing of the public, in this case the health experts contributing towards the control and prevention of this deadly disease, to over-act.