DR Congo

In DR Congo, polio survivors advocate on behalf of immunization efforts

The first-ever World Immunization Week takes place from 21-28 April 2012. UNICEF offices around the world are engaging in immunization campaigns and raising awareness about the importance of vaccines to child survival. UNICEF is the world’s largest buyer of vaccines for the world’s poorest countries, and has been supplying vaccines to children for over 50 years.

By Natacha Ikoli

BAS-CONGO, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 24 April 2012 – Roger Vuanda Movita was only 2 years old when polio took away his ability to walk.

Video: UNICEF correspondent Natacha Ikoli reports on a sports journalist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who has dedicated his life to polio eradication efforts, becoming a powerful voice in the fight against the disease

The crippling disease – known locally as buka-buka – has hindered his life ever since. Although he’s had 17 surgical operations, he has not fully regained use of his lower limbs.

Nevertheless, today, at 58 years old, Mr. Movita has found success as a sports journalist in Bas-Congo Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and he serves his community as a passionate advocate on behalf of polio eradication efforts.

Living with Polio

UNICEF, a partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), supports immunization campaigns around the world, aiming to end the spread of this disease once and for all. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF also procures oral polio vaccines for distribution around the world.

Still, polio persists in areas with poor health infrastructure and low immunization coverage. Children are particularly at risk, says UNICEF immunization specialist Dr. Granga Daouya.

“Children are, by their nature, most vulnerable in the face of polio disease,” Dr. Daouya said. “They are fragile and haven’t built all their resistance… Often, when the child is infected, he will end up paralyzed for life. And in some cases the paralysis can lead to death if it affects the thorax and breathing organs.”

Those disabled by polio often rely on assistance from friends and family to perform even the most basic everyday tasks. Their disabilities may prevent them from becoming financially self-sufficient, and they may be marginalized within their communities. Though Mr. Movita is proud to have a career and be financially independent, he still needs help from his family and friends to perform daily tasks, from taking a shower to getting to work.

Life is difficult, he says, because walking even a short 100 meters is very hard. “I am in a state where I am consoled by my wife, my children and the community. I see that I am loved, but still I don’t want other people to become like me,” Mr. Movita said.

Low Risk Perception

The Democratic Republic of the Congo – a vast country with over 65 million people – has experienced just under 200 cases of polio since 2010. While this is a large number in terms of global polio statistics, most Congolese people have never met or interacted with a polio survivor.

Consequently, many families underestimate the destructive effect of the disease, and some parents fail to see the importance of immunizing their children with the oral polio vaccine.

Giving voice to people affected by polio has been essential to increasing people’s understanding of the disease’s threat.

Mr. Movita has dedicated his spare time to advocating for polio vaccination in his community. He also uses his popularity as a sports journalist to promote vaccination over television and radio programmes.

“I am fighting in the hope that the Democratic Republic of the Congo will one day reach [the status of] the other nations where there’s no more talks about this disease that is polio,” he said.

Personalizing polio

When an outbreak of polio occurred in the Kimvula ‘health zone’ of his province, Mr. Movita left on a 20-day-long UNICEF-supported mission to mobilize community members and leaders in support of immunization efforts. He visited local markets, villages and schools, speaking about his own experience and explaining why polio is a threat.

He also visited leaders and families who resisted immunization efforts, and his intervention was critical to increasing people’s understanding of the disease and decreasing levels of vaccine refusal.

Other polio survivors and their families are also involved launching and conducting immunization campaigns. By sharing their stories, and by reaching out to resistant community members, they are personalizing the risks of the disease and helping to protect a generation of children from its disabling effects.