By Lorena Bornacelly.

When the Colombian government announced the closure of the borders with Venezuela due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Venezuelan mothers kept without the option of getting the doses of the vaccines for their kids. Colombian newspaper La Opinión reported in 2019 that, according to government figures, 113,929 doses, got applied to Venezuelan kids.

Now, vaccinating their kids in Venezuela is the only option. And mothers doubt, especially after an 11-month-old baby died after getting a vaccine last May 16 in Chacao, Miranda state, central Venezuela.

El Pitazo talked to several mothers whose children must receive certain vaccinations according to their age. In a country with constant electrical failures, the biggest concern of these women is the suspicion that the vaccines are not properly refrigerated. They fear that during power outages, which in many states of the country last from 2 to 24 hours continuously, immunizations will damage, especially in clinics that do not have power plants.

Inadequate cold storage

Blackouts are frequent in Venezuela and is known that many hospitals not having emergency generators. That is the main reason why many Venezuelan mothers do not trust immunizations in Venezuela, especially in the state of Tachira, where the electricity service is interrupting every day. Venezuelan children do not comply with the vaccination schedule because of this situation.

Solimar Luna has a seven-month-old daughter, who she took to Cucuta, Colombia, to begin the vaccination schedule when the girl was two months old. At a public health center in Colombia, the baby girl received her first doses of the five vaccines of the scheme, including polio and pneumococci.

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While she was waiting for her second dose of the same vaccines, the border was closed, and she confined herself following the COVID-19 precautions. The baby is now missing three doses.”My daughter is missing her four and six-month-old dose. I put the vaccines in Cucuta because I don’t trust the cold storage in Venezuela because of the constant electrical failures,” said the mother.

Melissa Montano, with her one-year-old daughter, is also in the same situation. The baby needs her six-month booster shots, her influenza shots, and her measles, hepatitis A, yellow fever, and pneumococcal booster shots.

“Since she was born, I have been vaccinating her in Cucuta (a Colombian city right over the border). I don’t trust the vaccines they give here (Venezuela). I rather run the risk of not vaccinating her than to risk her to something in bad condition. Here, the cold storage chain can be broken easily with the many hours without power. No matter how careful they are, it is logical that the condition is not optimal. Also, there have already been cases in the country of problems with vaccines, even sick children, and one death. I’m not taking any risk,” Montano said.

The scheme is incomplete

Even if Tachira state mothers wanted to continue their children’s immunizations in Venezuela, they could not do so. By June 2020, the Táchira Health Corporation (Corposalud) and the state’s clinics did not have all the vaccines that children require.

“We have the primary vaccines, that is, BCG and hepatitis B, but the rest of the schedule is incomplete. For years the public health system has not had pneumococcal nor rotavirus vaccines. The Ministry of Health does not report the reasons for the lack of them,” Ildemaro Pacheco, manager of the Ministry of Health, told El Pitazo.

There is currently no pentavalent. “After the death of a child last May in Chacao (Caracas), the Ministry of Health withdrew the entire batch of pentavalent vaccines in the country for review and investigation,” explained the manager of Corposalud.

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As a result, there are no health care centers in Tachira or Venezuela with this immunization that protects against diphtheria, polio, tetanus, pertussis, and invasive as Haemophilus influenzae type b diseases.

When parents go to Corposalud or outpatient clinics, the staff warns them that the immunization scheme is not complete. “We must tell them that we don’t have them, but we can’t recommend anything because with the open border was the option, but now it’s not possible. We are not going to encourage them to go on trails to Cucuta. We apologize because it is the fault of the national government,” he said.

Summarizing, Rotavirus, Neunococcus, and Pentavalent are vaccines that are currently not available in the Venezuelan public health system.

In the face of shortages for some vaccines and power failures to preserve the existing ones, doubts are constant. Mothers fear that their children will have reactions, but they also live in fear of what will happen if they do not vaccinate their babies.

For Maria Isabel Rodriguez, a pediatrician doctor, the vaccines are one of the most important discoveries that have saved the most lives over the years.

“If I don’t vaccinate my child, I’m simply exposing my child to diseases that are endemic in our country. Here, over the last five to eight years, we have seen diseases that were lost for 20 or 30 years, because an immunization schedule had already accomplished, the population had vaccinated in total, and that generated a cocoon effect,” she explained.

Trust in vaccines

The Venezuelan Society of Childcare and Pediatrics (SVPP in Spanish) stated on May 18, following the death of the 11-month-old child in Chacao, the importance of vaccines for infants.

“We urge the community to keep trusting in vaccines and the Expanded Program on Immunization since there is no pattern that linked the death to any particular vaccine. Not to echo unfounded rumors and anti-vaccine groups that take advantage of situations of this nature to instill mistrust of vaccines,” the statement reads.

However, on June 29, 2020, the SVPP declared again. That time, about the research carried by the Ministry of Health into the baby’s death. In the communication, the organization informs that it disassociated itself from the investigation, considering that it is was carried out with irregularities.

Despite the formal withdrawal of the research, at no time in the published text does SVPP negatively refer to vaccines. On the contrary, they reject that the Ministry of Health did not speak out in favor of immunizations, especially after the fear that some families may feel.

Vaccinating in Venezuela

As well as some decided not to vaccinate, some mothers choose to ensure maximum compliance with the scheme in their children in Venezuela.

Victoria Duque is one of them. Without fear and with full confidence, she went to an outpatient clinic and vaccinated her one-year-old son. “The truth is that I was more afraid not to vaccinate him. I consulted the pediatrician, and she didn’t object, so I went. He still needs to be vaccinated, but I feel more comfortable knowing that he has at least some. Health comes first,” she said.

With the same thought, Nelly Pernia complied with the vaccinations to the first year of her little girl’s life. But she musted to spend $180 to pay for the anti-pneumococcal and anti-rotavirus vaccines, acquired by private laboratories that bought them and stored them under special conditions that guarantee the effectiveness of the vaccines.

Both mothers told El Pitazo that, after the border was closed, they knew they did not want to delay immunization. Regarding the case in Chacao, both mothers agreed that, although the baby’s death was probably due to the vaccine, they see it as one case in thousands, and not as something regular.