On the front lines of polio eradication in Afghanistan
By Rajat Madhok
World Polio Day is 24 October.
In Afghanistan, where poverty and insecurity are all too well known, social mobilizers are quietly leading the fight to eradicate polio.
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, 23 October 2013 – Eradicating polio in Afghanistan – one of only three countries where the disease remains endemic – is a battle taking place every day across the country. Against the larger backdrop of instability and suffering that continues to draw the world’s focus, it is also largely invisible.
But amid this scenario are those who fight social and cultural odds and work long hours trying to make the difference in a struggle between life and death. These men and women go from house to house, village to village and from one mosque to the next to speak about the importance of eradicating polio. Despite death threats and fears of being ostracized, these champions for the cause are undeterred, and their aim is clear – to rid their country of this deadly disease once and for all.
UNICEF met with a few of these heroes to talk about the work they do and the issues they confront every day. Below are some extracts from their interviews.
Despite death threats and fears of being ostracized, Rahila works as a mobilizer going door to door to vaccinate children less than five years of age against polio.
Rahila* is a polio social mobilizer:
Three days before the vaccination campaign starts, we go house-to-house to dot-mark the houses. Each dot on the wall or the door of the house represents a child in that household. The vaccinators vaccinate all children less than 5 years of age.
In some areas where we work, some families do not allow us to vaccinate their children. Some communities do not like women walking house-to-house in the streets. The main challenge for social mobilisers and the vaccinators is that families sometimes think that the vaccine is not good for their children, or they complain about too many campaigns, so we, the vaccinators and social mobilizers have to help them understand why it is so important to vaccinate every child in every campaign and we have to convince them that the vaccine is safe for their children.
Working in Kandahar as a female is very tough. First, most women have to convince their own families that it is good work for a good cause, that it is safe and that we will be working mainly with other women.
I have been working as a social mobilizer for polio for a few years now, and I continue to face challenges while working in communities. I am often criticized for working outside the house and for being engaged in this programme, but I continue to work, because I believe it is my right to contribute to making my community better and I believe it is our children’s right to be protected from polio.
Mullah Abdul Rauf, the head of a madrasa (religious school), and Gul Mohammad, a community leader, allay fears and misconceptions of the polio vaccine.
Mullah Abdul Rauf is the head of a madrasa (school for Islamic instruction) and supports the eradication of polio:
Initially madrasas were against vaccination and urged people not to vaccinate their children. Later we came to understand that in sharia law, there is nothing that prohibits this. The rumours in the community were that these vaccines are harmful and can affect fertility of children. Many mullahs and madrasas also told people that these vaccines are prohibited by Islam. We were not in a position to say that the vaccination is good, simply because we did not have enough information.
The issue of vaccination was shared and discussed with religious and Islamic scholars, and it was realized that the vaccination is good for the well-being of children. It is Islamic and the humanitarian right of all children to be vaccinated.
It is our responsibility to protect our children from dangerous diseases like polio.
A student volunteers to be a social mobilizer for the polio vaccine and discovers his cousin has not been vaccinated.
Gul Mohammad is a community leader who works to educate people about the importance of polio eradication:
There are so many families who refuse vaccination. A lot of people hate it. Mullah Molvi came to our community and convinced us that there is nothing wrong in the vaccines and timely vaccination will prevent our children from being infected by the polio virus.
Since Mullah Molvi came to talk to our community, we have changed our minds, and my children are all vaccinated. We also participate in meetings and talk to others about the benefits of these vaccines.
In 2012, a total of 37 confirmed polio cases were reported from Afghanistan, a significant reduction compared to 80 cases reported the year before.
As of 18 October, 10 confirmed cases of polio virus have been reported this year across Afghanistan, according to the World Health Organization. The polio-endemic areas in southern Afghanistan have not reported a polio case for the last 10 months.
- Name changed