Let’s talk about it: improving immunization coverage in the Solomon Islands

Feature story

Baby Joy, 17 weeks old, and her mother Freda Ava’a wait for Joy’s catch–up vaccinations.

Baby Joy looks around the room with bright, curious eyes, closely watching the nurse as she pulls on her white latex gloves. Joy is 17 weeks old, and that means she is overdue to receive four different vaccinations, as per Solomon Islands’ routine immunization schedule.

Unfortunately, many children are like Joy: they receive their vaccinations late. In fact, over 25% do not receive the full schedule at all.

As Dr Tenneth Dalipanda, Permanent Secretary for the Ministry of Health, explains, there are many factors that must be dealt with in order to improve immunization coverage in Solomon Islands. “Accessibility of services and limited infrastructure are two major challenges that the Ministry is working hard to tackle. But we’ve conducted some research that has shed light on another issue that must also be addressed. That is, the knowledge and attitude of parents regarding immunization.”

Research by the Solomon Islands Ministry of Health suggests that parents’ knowledge about immunization is not always accurate, and they often have conflicting feelings about it too.

That is why the Ministry of Health, WHO and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) came together to develop the National Immunization Communication Strategy 2017–2020.

The Strategy aims to encourage discussion with parents in order to address concerns, confusion and the lack of accurate information so that they can choose to make immunization a priority for their family.

Immunization is a key health issue in Solomon Islands; in fact, it is a global priority as well. Target 3.8 in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for "…access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all" by 2030.

“Improving access to vaccines in Solomon Islands means enhancing surveillance efforts, so that disease trends can be monitored and documented,” says Dr Sevil Huseynova, WHO Representative to Solomon Islands. “It means improving cold chain so that the vaccines stay at the correct temperature and can do their job properly. It also means ensuring that families and communities are accessing correct information, empowering them to make positive health decisions. WHO is working closely with the Ministry of Health across these varied areas to improve immunization coverage.”

Launched during World Immunization Week 2017, the National Immunization Communication Strategy is designed to respond to the specific context in each area of Solomon Islands by working in partnership with the provinces. Using processes, tools and materials developed at the national level, each province will be supported to develop their own roll-out plan appropriate for their communities.

The Strategy is a great example of what can be achieved when partners and government come together. It is partly funded by the United Nations Joint Programme (UNJP) for Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH), which is supported by the Australian Government, WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and GAVI. The UNJP coordinates the activities of implementing partners so that WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA are working together with the Ministry of Health towards the same priorities, increasing efficiency and avoiding overlap. In Solomon Islands the UNJP, which is also active in Kiribati and Vanuatu, is coordinated by WHO.

The Strategy was launched alongside a widespread “catch-up” drive, with nurses stationed at key pop-up sites so that parents can bring in their children to catch up on any vaccinations they missed. Health promotion staff will also be active at these sites, encouraging parents to discuss any questions or concerns. Baby Joy is one child who benefited from this activity.

When it’s all over, Joy lets out a few tears, but her mother Freda Ava’a is not too worried. “I know vaccines protect my baby from getting sick, so it’s better to do it even if she cries a little bit,” she says.