Angola turns the tide against polio
By Suzanne Beukes
UIGE, Angola, 8 August 2012 – In the north-eastern town of Uige, 26-year-old Ricardo Monteiro makes his way to work in his three-wheeled chair. Ricardo has polio, which his says he contracted when the family lived on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo during the civil war in Angola.
Feeling unwanted by his family, Ricardo left home for Uige and found work in Mundo Albert’s metal-working business. “It took me a while to find someone who would give me a job,” says Ricardo. While Ricardo only completed grade eight, he is bright and eager to learn a trade so that he can earn money and return to school. “Next year I will study. I have a dream of becoming a nurse, and of course I know that I will succeed because of this strength that I have inside me.”
Ricardo’s story will hopefully be one of the past. Angola is celebrating one year free of polio. This is a major milestone for a country which had originally defeated polio in 2001 but has suffered repeated re-importations since 2005.
Reaching each and every child
Uige province has done well in the fight against polio. Porous borders with the Democratic Republic of Congo and The Republic of Congo mean that the contagious disease, which is spread through contaminated water and food, can go undetected as people move from country to country. Authorities working with UNICEF, WHO and other partners have placed check-points along the borders to ensure those coming in and out are vaccinated.
Through polio campaigns in 2012, the number of children not vaccinated in the province has dropped to 3 percent (from 10 percent in 2011). Lucrecia Pedro Miguel, Provincial Immunisation Supervisor in Uige province, says these positive results come from “an improvement in the behaviour of people from polio campaigns, involvement of the community and routine immunisation.”
In the country’s capital Luanda, however, reaching every child in the sprawling maze of informal settlements is a major challenge. The Independent Monitoring Board, a group of experts on polio, called Luanda “a natural home for polio.” Koenraad Vanormelingen, UNICEF Angola’s representative says, “Luanda is a brewing pot for infectious diseases like polio and cholera because it has around a quarter of the population living here, so there is overcrowding and water and sanitation problems.”
Community volunteers lead the way
In Cazenga, one of Luanda’s many poverty-stricken municipalities, community volunteers are leading the way in making sure that children receive their polio vaccinations and their families lead healthier lives. A programme run by Pastoral da Crianca, through support by UNICEF, WHO and partners, selects and trains community leaders to monitor the health of families in their areas. Each volunteer is in charge of ten families, who receive regular check-ups and vaccinations.
“The big contribution that Pastoral da Crianca has made,” says Enedir Rosa Correa, Coordinator of Pastoral da Crianca in Cazenga, “is that these mothers don’t have a problem going into houses to talk with parents about why it is important for children to get the vaccine.” She continues, “The families are taught that it is the right of a child to receive the vaccinations, go to health centres and lead healthy lives.”
Not just about vaccines
According to mother Teresa Joaquim, her three-year-old son Evanda might not be alive today if not for the intervention of community volunteer Cecilia Domingos. When Cecelia heard the boy was very thin and sick, she went to him and was shocked to see he was severely malnourished. She immediately referred him to a clinic where he stayed for a few days, and then provided Teresa with rehydration salts and showed her how to prepare nutritious meals made from easy-to-access local ingredients. “If it wasn’t for Cecilia,” says Teresa, “I don’t know where I would be today.”
In addition to providing routine vaccinations and basic healthcare, Cecilia also teaches families about good hygiene practices. She says things have improved in her area since the group started working here six years ago. “During the war times there was a lot of illness and death here. Since I started with Pastoral, I have learned and things have started becoming normal,” she says.
By strengthening the quality of vaccination campaigns, expanding and improving routine vaccination services, applying better border control, and improving access to water and sanitation services at a household level, Angola is on the road to eradicating polio. The country has to have no reported polio cases for three years before it is considered polio free.
“We deeply appreciate the commitment of local, provincial and national government officials, civil society, international partners and the private sector and the media, who have all played their role in achieving this significant milestone,” said The Minister of Health José Vieira Dias Van-Dúnem.