La Soufrière 1979 eruption and SVG’s mass vaccination campaign

A baby’s first time receiving a vaccine. Photo: Nation Newspaper.

By Demion McTair. Updated 1:16 p.m., Saturday, May 8, 2021, Atlantic Standard Time (GMT-4).

In 1979, while St. Vincent and the Grenadines was coping with a volcanic disaster, fighting for political independence from Britain, and then preparing for general elections, a national immunization campaign was being pushed.

The campaign’s rollout, however, was set to begin before the April 13, 1979, explosive eruption of the La Soufrière volcano, but was disrupted.

Phase One of the immunization program officially started on May 7, less than a month after the explosive eruption began at La Soufrière.

According to the Friday, May 18, 1979 edition of The Vincentian Newspaper (the country’s main newspaper at the time), the focus was on immunizing children and adults against measles, diphtheria, polio, typhoid, whooping cough, and other ailments.

A volunteer team of doctors and nurses from Canada and local personnel from St. Vincent and the Grenadines’ ministry of health spearheaded the effort.

Needles and syringes were not the only tools used to offer immunization. At the time, a Med-e-Jet inoculator capable of immunizing about 1,000 people in an hour was being used.

In the May 18, 1979 report, The Vincentian Newspaper said the program represented “a gift to the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines by a consortium including the St. Georges University in Grenada, the Canadian Foundation, the Brothers Brother Foundation of Pittsburgh, and the St. Vincent Ministry of Health”.

Phase One of the program saw the immunization of over 64,000 people in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, according to the November 30, 1979 edition of The Vincentian Newspaper.

The program, however, had some challenges in its early stages. It was reported that young people, particularly teenagers in Richland Park were refusing the vaccines.

The reason(s) for such refusal was not reported.

Apart from St. Vincent’s program, issues with the Med-e-Jet tool later surfaced in the mid-1980s.

The Med-e-Jet later turned out to be controversial in international circles. According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Jet injector was once “implicated as the vehicle of transmission” for Hepatitis B (HBV).

“The CDC experiments reported here suggest that the Med-E-Jet, if contaminated, could transmit HBV but that it does not become contaminated easily during actual use,” the CDC reported.

In a June 1986 article, the Los Angeles Times reported on the CDC’s findings that “24% of the clinic clients receiving their shots by jet injector guns developed acute hepatitis B infections, contrasted with none of those who got their shots by syringe”.

No reports were found relating to such occurrences in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

By the end of November 1979, it was reported that St. Vincent recorded “a dramatic decrease in the incidence of measles since Phase One started in May” of 1979.

Phases Two and Three of the program rolled out in July and November.

Immunization was ramped up in November 1979, with over 25,000 people immunized in 10 days, according to the Friday, November 30, 1979 edition of The Vincentian Newspaper.

Immunization had taken place at all schools throughout the country.

Today, in 2021, during another volcanic disaster, there is a national vaccination campaign taking place.

This time, according to health officials and politicians, this vaccination campaign against COVID-19 seeks to build herd immunity among the population.

The 2021 COVID-19 vaccination campaign which started in March, amid the effusive eruptions of La Soufriere and has lived through the explosive eruptions which began on April 9, 2021, is also being met with some resistance.

People have interpreted some public comments by some politicians on COVID-19 vaccination as threatening the job security of public servants. Other comments have been interpreted as tying of the ability to remain in government shelters for vaccination. Other people have said that arguments or concerns raised about the risks associated with taking available COVID-19 vaccines are quickly dismissed or swept under the rug.

To date, more than 14,000 people have received at least one dose of a State-approved COVID-19 vaccine.

Health officials continue to reaffirm the efficacy and safety of the vaccines and encourage people to protect themselves against COVID-19.

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