South African travel clinics have inadvertently sparked a nationwide shortage of yellow fever vaccines by advising travellers to Zambia to get the shots, even though the country is not on the Department of Health’s list of destinations from which travellers must provide yellow fever certificates before entry into SA, according to Business Day.
The sudden surge in demand caught the vaccine’s maker Sanofi-Aventis on the back foot and left it scrambling to get new supplies into the country, which it only expects to land on August 12. Sanofi-Aventis typically sells 6000-7000 shots a month in SA, but demand more than tripled last month, its spokeswoman Mpumi Sithole said.
Airlines typically will not carry passengers to yellow fever areas without proof of vaccination, and port authorities in SA will not allow people travelling from such regions to enter the country without these certificates or may impose heavy fines on returning residents.
Yellow fever is a virus transmitted by mosquitoes, and gets its name from the jaundice it causes in some patients.
High-risk areas include more than 30 African countries that lie in a band stretching from 15° north to 10° south of the equator, and several South American countries including Brazil, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
Yesterday the department issued a statement advising travellers who could not obtain shots prior to visiting a high-risk yellow fever region to postpone their trips. It said yellow fever certificates were not required of travellers from Zambia.
The confusion about whether or not travellers to Zambia should get vaccinated against yellow fever stems from a change in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) assessment of the risk of yellow fever in African countries, published in April. Zambia was previously considered not to be at risk of yellow fever, but the WHO changed this to low risk for its southern and western regions.
Under international travel regulations, this meant it was up to other countries to decide whether to require travellers from Zambia to have yellow fever certificates.
Based on discussions with the health department’s head of communicable diseases Frew Benson, who indicated that the government was set to add Zambia to the list of destinations for which travellers would need yellow fever vaccinations, South African Society for Travel Medicine travel clinics started offering the shots, said executive member Albie de Frey. The society expected the department to make an announcement on June 30, he said.
“We were trying to pre-empt what we were told would happen, in the interests of travellers … we did not want (them) to be stuck,” he said.
But the department has held back on making its decision as it is still in talks with the WHO on the issue, according to Dr Benson.
International travel regulations require SA not to impose undue restrictions on international trade and travel, and this must be balanced against the risk of importing yellow fever from Zambia, he said. Dr Benson declined to be drawn on when a final decision on Zambia was likely.