South Sudan debuts the world’s mass vaccination campaign against hepatitis E

SUDAN – South Sudan’s Ministry of Health has partnered with the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) to kick off the world’s first mass vaccination campaign against hepatitis E which has benefitted around 25,000 people so far including pregnant women.

South Sudan and MSF have jointly carried out the first two rounds of the hepatitis E vaccination campaign in Bentiu internally displaced persons camp in South Sudan’s Unity state during the period between March 2022 and April 2022 while the third and final round will be conducted in October 2022.

Médecins Sans Frontières Medical Director Dr Monica Rull explained that over the last two decades, MSF has been responding to hepatitis E outbreaks in displacement camps, trying to control the disease in challenging conditions and seeing the devastating impact on extremely vulnerable communities.

Bentiu is the largest displaced persons camp in South Sudan and has seen multiple hepatitis E outbreaks which are the consequence of appalling living conditions including a lack of access to adequate water, sanitation and hygiene.

The success of the Bentiu vaccination campaign shows that it is possible to use the vaccine for outbreak response, even under difficult conditions. MSF hopes the campaign will encourage other countries to use the vaccine as part of measures to control outbreaks of hepatitis E.

The Ministry of Health of South Sudan has partnered with MSF to curb the reoccurring disease outbreaks through a large-scale vaccination campaign after growing concerns over MSF Bentiu Hospital reporting 759 patients with confirmed hepatitis E, 17 of whom have died, since July 2021.

According to Médecins Sans Frontières, hepatitis E is the most common cause of acute viral hepatitis and the virus is transmitted through fecal contamination of food and water causing approximately 20 million infections and 44,000 deaths per year.

Large-scale outbreaks typically occur when water and sanitation are inadequate such as in mass displacement camps and there is no specific treatment for hepatitis E which has a fatality rate of up to 25 percent among pregnant women and it increases the risk of spontaneous abortions and stillbirths.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that the only available hepatitis E vaccine known as Hecolin be considered for use in outbreak responses since 2015 after the vaccine proved to be highly effective at the preventing disease in clinical trials.

The vaccination campaign in Bentiu is the first time the WHO recommended vaccine against hepatitis E has been used in response to a public health emergency following extreme flooding and new influxes of displaced people in 2021 which increased the spread of waterborne illnesses such as hepatitis E.

Furthermore, South Sudan’s Ministry of Health and MSF are working closely to monitor and report on the results of the mass vaccination campaign while implementing other outbreak control measures such as improving water and sanitation services in concerted efforts to eliminate the waterborne disease.

The world’s first hepatitis E mass vaccination campaign conducted by health workers in South Sudan is a significant milestone in global efforts to tackle the water borne disease and a crucial step toward reducing the burden of hepatitis E in the future.

Director General for Preventive Health Services, South Sudan Ministry of Health Dr John Rumunu said that the success of the Bentiu vaccination campaign can serve as an example and be replicated in similar settings managing hepatitis E outbreaks.

Dr John Rumunu further acknowledged the successful implementation and the community’s enthusiastic response in the first two vaccination rounds against hepatitis E, adding that the vaccine will help reduce infections and deaths from hepatitis E in Bentiu and beyond.

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