Coinciding with the birth anniversary of Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen, the health ministry yesterday launched three new vaccines – pneumococcal, rotavirus, and flu vaccines.

Pneumococcal vaccine prevents transmission of pneumococcal bacterial diseases such as pneumonia, otitis media, bacteraemia, and meningitis in children under five years.

Pneumonia is one of the top 10 diseases in the country. It accounts for 27.8 percent of child deaths in Bhutan while meningitis account for about five percent of child deaths.

The vaccine will be given to about 14,000 children under one year every year. Pneumococcal vaccine will also be administered to the elderly people aged above 65-years-old, which is estimated at 40,000.

Five elderly women received the flu vaccine as part of the launch programme.

Introduction of the vaccine for both children and elderly is expected to cost Nu 21.9M (million) annually and an additional one-time introduction cost of Nu 4.62M.

Health minister Tandin Wangchuk said rotavirus vaccine is introduced in the country to prevent children from diarrhoea.

“Diarrhoea is a major cause of illness and deaths among the children.”

Rotavirus is a highly contagious virus that infects the intestine and is the most common cause of severe diarrheal disease in infants and young children worldwide. About 13 percent of child deaths in Bhutan are due to diarrheal disease.

Rotavirus vaccine will be administered to about 14,000 children under one year every year.

With a one-time introduction estimated cost at Nu 4.62M, the vaccine would cost the Bhutan Health Trust Fund Nu 12.52M annually.

Director of public health department, Dr Karma Lhazeen, said the new vaccines for children under one-year-old are expected to contribute significantly in the reduction of childhood morbidity and mortality resulting in improved infant mortality rate and under-five mortality rate.

The health sector will administer flu vaccine on an annual basis for high-risk groups including pregnant women, children under five years, elderly people (above 65-years-old), individuals with specific chronic medical conditions and health-care workers.

Flu vaccine is estimated to cost Nu 58.89M annually with an additional one-time introduction cost of Nu 5M.

Health officials said flu (influenza) vaccine is an effective preventive health measure against seasonal influenza to reduce illness, complications and deaths among pregnant women, children under five years, elderly persons and persons with chronic health conditions.

Considering that the circulating influenza virus strains changes over the years, the WHO Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System recommends vaccination on an annual basis to ensure an optimal match between the vaccine and circulating influenza strains.

The ministry will start administering these vaccines through the routine immunisation service from January next year considering the logistics and technical readiness.

Bhutan Health Trust Fund will pay for the new vaccines.

Lyonpo said that with the launch of the three new vaccines, a total of 14 vaccinations will be provided through routine immunization programme.

Bhutan launched the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) in 1979. Since then, a total of 11 vaccines – Polio, Measles, BCG, Diphtheria, Pertussis, Tetanus, Hep B, Hib, Rubella, Mumps and HPV, are provided in the country as of today. The immunisation coverage stands at 97 percent.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said the vaccines are for the children and the elderly people because they are more vulnerable to sickness. If children are not taken proper care of and if they fall sick, there is the risk of them dying and suffering other health conditions.

Similarly, Lyonchhen said if elderly people suffer from flu, because of old age and weak immunity, they are more susceptible to other diseases. “The vaccine will help them improve their life expectancy and quality of life.”

“We are launching the vaccines as a gift from Her Majesty The Gyaltsuen for the elderly and children,” Lyonpo Tandin Wangchuk said. “With the introduction of the vaccines, the number of morbidity and mortality in the country are expected to reduce.”

With the inauguration of the Health Emergency Operations Centre (HEOC), WHO Representative, Dr Rui Paulo De Jesus officially handed over the centre to the health secretary, Dr Ugen Dophu.

Dr Rui said Bhutan sits on a highly seismic zone and is susceptible to environmental health challenges induced by climate change. Floods triggered by glacial outbursts and torrential rain are a constant concern. This necessitates preparedness on the part of the Bhutanese health system, should a natural calamity strike.

“Realising this and learning from experience, WHO recommends HEOC as a critical management infrastructure for both deliveries of public health functions and for mounting adequate response during emergencies,” he said.

The HEOC is equipped with communication facilities including video conferencing, VHF radios, satellite phones, cameras, Broadband Global Area Network and can be powered by a generator and solar energy systems. Other office amenities such as computers, printers, chargers and furniture are also placed inside the centre.

WHO and the European Commission’s Preparedness Programme funded Nu 7.1M for the centre.

Dr Rui said the training for the health ministry’s staff on the usage of the equipment and a mock dill is planned later this month.

“The ability of the HEOC to function effectively depends on staffing, command structure, and plans and procedures developed prior to the event,” he said.

In order to enhance emergency medical response and to allow for streamlining of WHO operational and supply support in the event of emergencies, Dr Rui said WHO has procured emergency medical supplies.  The supplies include Medical Camp Kits, Rapid Response Team Deployment Kits, and Inter-Agency Emergency Health Kits among others.

Dechen Tshomo