A child receives the Pentavalent injection, by the Honourable Minister of Health and Social Welfare Dr. Mphu Ramatlapeng (right), at the official launch of the vaccine. The WHO Representative, Dr Angela Benson (left) holding the baby.

In yet another milestone effort to reduce childhood sicknesses and deaths from preventable diseases, the Minister of Health and Social Welfare (MOHSW), Dr. Mphu Ramatlapeng, officially launched the Pentavalent vaccine, for the first time in Lesotho.

Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the MOHSW, WHO, UNICEF, the GAVI Alliance and other partners, this life-saving vaccine was introduced to provide more protection to children in the country.

The Pentavalent is a five-in-one vaccine that combines 5 antigens, namely: Dyptheria; Pertussis; Tetanus; Hepatitis B (HB) and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).

Diphtheria, Pertussis and Tetanus (known as D.P.T.) is a three-in-one combination that has been a backbone of infant vaccination programs in the country. DPT is already part of Lesotho's national Expanded Programme of Immunization (EPI). It consists of 3 doses provided at an interval of 6 to 8 weeks starting from 2 months of age, with boosters at 1½ years and 4½ years.

Hepatitis B is one of the most widespread viral diseases in the world. The HB vaccine has been part of Lesotho's EPI schedule since 2003. It consists of a single vaccine administered in 3 doses at 0, 1 month and 5 months of age. HB was also part of Lesotho's routine immunization schedule.

Hib, has been the leading cause of bacterial meningitis and pneumonia in many parts of the world and contributes to about 20% extra deaths in children under five, in developing countries. The HIB vaccine has been part of EPI in Lesotho and consists of a single vaccine administered in 3 doses to be given along with D.P.T. and a booster around 16 months of age.

Pentavalent combines these vaccines into one single shot that now immunizes the child against five childhood diseases. With fewer injections and fewer scheduled appointments to health facilities, it will reduce missed opportunities for vaccinations. In addition, the supply of a single batch of five vaccines stacked together will reduce wastage and avoid any of the vaccines being out of stock. Furthermore, fridge capacity and space is also now maximized as five vaccines are now combined in one vial.

At the official ceremony which took place in the capital Maseru, the Honorable Minister of Health and Social Welfare administered the first shot of the vaccine to a group of under five children. In her remarks, she emphasized the importance of the Pentavalent vaccine in broadening children's protection from preventable diseases.

The Pentavalent combination vaccine has been developed following recommendations of the WHO for the introduction of HB and Hib vaccines into routine childhood vaccination programs. Together with oral polio and BCG (Tuberculosis) vaccine, the Pentavalent combination covers all the vaccine antigens recommended by WHO for administration between the first and sixth months of life of a child.

The Christian Health Association of Lesotho (CHAL) Executive Secretary, Ms. M. Ntholi, stated that "the vaccine comes at an opportune time, when the country has embarked on a Reaching-Every-District strategy to increase routine immunization".

Speaking at the launching ceremony, the UNICEF Representative Mrs. Aichatou Diawara-Flambert, highlighted that varying trends of vaccine preventable diseases have been experienced in Lesotho, including bacterial Pneumonia and Meningitis. "It is necessary to constantly review the emerging trends of diseases burden so that new interventions can be implemented to provide quality child health care services. This initiative is aimed at addressing the ever changing child health care needs" said the UNICEF Representative.

She further pointed out the importance of other child health interventions for accelerated child survival and development, and to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). "Early initiation and exclusive breast-feeding, should be the first 'vaccine' against disease, proper infant and young child feeding, Vitamin A supplementation, Prevention of Mother to Child transmission of HIV programme (PMTCT), and Pentavalent together with BCG and Polio vaccination are some of the interventions that need to be fully integrated" said Mrs. Diawara-Flambert.

Death of babies during the neonatal period is still common due to different causes, most of which are preventable and as such, this is one of the many strategies being adopted by MOHSW and its partners to halt this drastic loss of lives. Vaccines are considered the most powerful tool for preventing disease, disability, and death, and for controlling and reducing overall health care costs, especially when given in infancy.

The introduction of the Pentavalent vaccine in the routine immunization schedule marks a milestone in further developing and expanding the national EPI programme and will ensure an additional reduction in mortality rates of children under 5 years of age.

As Dr. Mphu Ramatlapeng administered the Pentavalent vaccine to the first child in Lesotho, a subtle cry echoed from the infant, marking the official launch of the initiative and an injection of hope for thousands of children and families in the country.