WHO experts here for Rubella probe

By Nadia Fazlulhaq, Pic. by Krishan Jeewaka Jayaruk

Two officials of the World Health Organization (WHO) will arrive in Sri Lanka today for an independent probe on the Rubella tragedy where one Matara school girl died and 27 fell ill after being given the vaccine last Thursday.

The visit comes after the Health Ministry sought WHO assistance to find the cause of the tragedy at St. Thomas’ Girls High School in Matara. The WHO officials, a senior virologist-cum-vaccine expert from France and a senior vaccine expert from India, are due today on a request made by the ministry to WHO Regional Director Samlee Plianbangchang.

A child who took ill after the Rubella vaccination being treated at Matara Hospital.

More than 300,000 Sri Lankan girl students annually receive the Rubella vaccination through schools under the immunization programme conducted by the Epidemiology Unit of the Health Ministry and the Medical Officers of Health.

Health Ministry Secretary Dr. Athula Kahandaliyanage said the ministry would decide whether to continue with the programme after the probe by the WHO experts. He said that if the experts found something wrong with the particular vaccine or that there was some form of medical negligence, suitable action would be taken.

"We are ready to give as much time as they want to do a comprehensive investigation. Until then, the vaccination programme stands suspended,” the secretary said. He said the Rubella vaccine brought to the country had been sanctioned by the WHO and imported by the State Pharmaceutical Corporation (SPC) imports from India.

Meanwhile, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) alleged that negligence was one of the main causes for most of the deaths caused due to vaccinations.

"Several deaths had been earlier reported after receiving the pyrexia (brain fever) vaccine and vaccine for spinal anaesthesia. All vaccines should be given under the supervision of a qualified doctor. They have sent a registered medical officer (RMO) when there are so many qualified doctors in the district," said GMOA spokesman Dr. Upul Gunasekare.

Meanwhile, the All Ceylon Health Services Union charged that the ministry was testing only samples of the Rubella vaccine and not all the stocks unless complaint was lodged.

"Sri Lanka is having a successful vaccination programme compared to other countries in the region. This is not a problem with the programme but an issue on the quality of the vaccine,” Union President Gamini Kumarasinghe said.

Matara’s Regional Health Director Dr. Sanath de Silva said one doctor attached to the MOH office of Matara and two Public Health Inspectors (PHIs) had given the vaccination at the Matara school and the girl who died had given a note sent by her mother saying she suffers from a certain allergy.

"Allergy reactions and different illnesses are taken into consideration especially when giving the Rubella vaccination. Some children may have severe allergic reaction and other may have some minor effects such as headaches, nausea, faintishness and difficulty in breathing. Only a full probe can reveal what really happened,” he said.

A departmental inquiry was held by a team headed by Public Health Services Director Dr. Palitha Mahipala and three senior epidemiologists.

"This is the first time a Rubella vaccine caused such complication in the country. So we have to look into whether the vaccine had some issues or whether it was due to negligence," Dr. Mahipala said.

The Rubella vaccine is given to girls to prevent German measles, especially during pregnancy.

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