Common sense needed in school vaccination policy enforcement

The Government’s approach in enforcing the recently passed compulsory vaccination laws for schools is understandable. Given the tragic nature of the measles epidemic, their insistence on vaccination is not without merit.

But the timeframe imposed on parents by the Government's new uncompromising policy, requiring students to present proof of vaccination before they can return to school, is absurd and unreasonable.

With schools starting tomorrow, the least the Government could do is grant a grace period of six months to allow the implementation process to take shape. 

It is not a secret that the Infants Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2019, which makes the provision of vaccination record mandatory for school enrollment, was only passed yesterday. 

And like all new laws, people whom they are intended to govern at the very least need time to absorb the impact on them. In other words, the Government cannot just force it down on people and expect them to pretend all is well. Which is precisely what is happening in Samoa today, causing so much anxiety and unnecessary frustration.

This law is very new and significant. Among other things, it threatens School Principals with fines of up to $10,000 where they are found to have enrolled children without complete vaccination records. This is an enormous responsibility on any individual. 

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to predict the problems this will create, especially in a country where we are already having problems ensuring all children are in school. The Government needs to consider all these factors. 

If anything, it is not the parents and schools’ fault that this has suddenly been imposed on them. Which is why we say it is unfair on the Government to be uncompromising and ruthless in enforcing this law, now. There will be a time for this but that time will come when all the groundwork has been prepared. 

Just because Government officials are pumping their chests and wanting to be seen to be in control of the measles situation does not mean they lose all senses. 

There has got to be a more sensible way of going about to achieve the goals of the new law. Besides, from what we have seen, the Government, namely the Ministry of Health, should try and sort it out their mess first before they dictate terms to parents on what can and cannot be done. 

You don’t have to look far; just listen to the mixed messages parents and members of the public are getting from the Ministry of Health. The story titled “Vaccine enrollment policy plagued by shortages” published on the front page of yesterday’s Samoa Observer, which highlighted shortages and inconsistent record-keeping as some of the challenges. 

In Savai'i, for example, the Tuasivi and Safotu District Hospitals have run out of vaccination cards.  Elsewhere, parents claim they have been asked to recall the exact date and locations for their children's immunisations as a pre-requisite for receiving proof-of-vaccination. This in itself poses a different set of challenges.

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But that’s not all. 

People, who were vaccinated at home by a mobile clinic during last year's mass vaccination campaign, or at an emergency clinic, have been instructed to obtain their proof-of-vaccine cards from the Tupua Tamasese Meaole (T.T.M.) Hospital. This is why hundreds of parents have been queuing up at the hospital during the past few weeks, leaving many angry and frustrated. The worst part, according to what we’ve been told, is that procedures for verifying children's vaccinations appear to differ between hospitals. 

Whose fault is this? You have your answer and we have ours. 

What is obvious is that families, children and unsuspecting members of the public are the ones bearing the brunt of it all. After spending hours waiting at the hospital, a father from Leulumoega, Tavita Levi, summed it up quite well.

“The scariest scenario is school starting on Monday while there are still parents not getting access to the cards for their children to attend school,” he said.

There is another matter, as raised by the Ministry of Health’s Tagaloa Dr. Robert Thomsen, who admitted that this year was proving too soon to realise the aims of the Infants Amendment Bill 2019.

 “At this stage we cannot really fulfill all the requirements as required by the new act to have every child fully immunised when they enter school,” he said.

 “It is because of the fact that in order for a child to have all its required immunisation to be updated it takes up to seven months to catch up all the required immunization before you enter school. The immunisation is never complete there are vaccines that are given at certain ages and so we are working on trying to catch up with that.”

Tagaloa is correct and we couldn’t agree more. Now this is coming from the Ministry of Health, the people who are at the forefront of this, and who are actually doing the work. Are the politicians who are making these decisions listening? 

The point is that while legitimate concerns are motivating the Government's legislation, there needs to be more sensitivity about its effects on members of the public. Besides, we’d like to believe that the worst of the measles epidemic is over and if the Government is truthful that “only 275 people” remain unvaccinated, what are they so concerned about? Unless even they don’t believe what they are telling us.

Lastly, when the Minister of Education, Sports and Culture, Loau Keneti Sio, was asked whether the lack of vaccination cards may lead to some students not being able to attend school, he said:  “I will discuss this matter with my Chief Executive Officer [Afamasaga Dr. Karoline Fuata'i] but with anything there must be a way.”

Well they need to find a way. Urgently too. Otherwise we could be staring at the possibility of hundreds, if not thousands of students, being rejected from school tomorrow. 

Have a peaceful Sunday Samoa, God bless!

 

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