Going door to door and bringing the world closer to ending polio once and for all

Around 150,000 children vaccinated against polio in March

Tairah Firdous

The Djibouti Ministry of Health, in collaboration with UNICEF and WHO, vaccinated around 150,000 children against polio during two rounds of the nationwide polio campaign conducted in March 2022. The campaign targeted to reach children from the poorest and most remote parts of this African country.

Harabaley, is a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Djibouti city. The neighbourhood lacks access to basic services such as water, sanitation, electricity, and proper healthcare. Madina Abdallah is a young mother who vaccinated her child for the first time during the polio campaign. As she whispers, Madina is breastfeeding her four-month-old son, Issa.

“I vaccinated my child for the first time during the polio campaign that was conducted recently. I didn’t know that kids are to be given polio drops until these health workers visited my house and informed me about the campaign,” she points to two social mobilisers who are visiting the neighbourhood to check if there were any children missed by the campaign.

“We don’t have electricity, radio nor television at home. If the health workers hadn’t visited my house, I wouldn’t have known about the polio campaign and my child would have missed the polio drops,” Madina adds.

Poor water and sanitation, inadequate nutrition, and a lack of access to basic health care services can combine to create the perfect conditions for communicable diseases like polio to spread. Reaching the children who would otherwise miss out on the vaccine is the formidable task undertaken by Fatima Mehmoud and Madina Sameray. They are UNICEF’s social mobilisers in Djibouti who have been tirelessly working to inform and convince caregivers in socio-economically impoverished neighbourhoods to vaccinate their children against preventable diseases such as polio.

“We have been working for the last eight years with communities to educate them on health benefits of vaccination and how two drops of polio can protect a child from a deadly disease like Poliomyelitis,” the social mobilisers say as they check the house marking to ensure that there were no children that were left out of their vaccine ambit.

Over the last few weeks, Fatima and Madina have been going house to house to inform parents of the dates of the polio campaign, urging the caregivers to stay at home on the campaign days to allow their children get the shots.

“In neighbourhoods like Harabaley, often people lack the resources to take children for routine vaccination. House-to-house campaigns help to reach such children. Sometimes people incorrectly assume that they must pay for the vaccine, which discourages them from accessing the services. We have to inform and educate them that the vaccine is free of cost,” explains Fatima.

Polio, the disease once known as the leading cause of paralysis among children worldwide, is very close to being eradicated. Since 1988, the number of children affected by polio has reduced by 99 per cent. Pakistan and Afghanistan remain the final frontiers of this disease. However, another variant of the polio virus that occurs in under-immunized communities with poor sanitation is spreading across parts of Asia and Africa. To eliminate polio completely, every child in every household must be vaccinated. But thousands of children remain unvaccinated.

“COVID-19 interrupted routine immunisation and now we have many children, especially in remote and poor areas, who haven’t been vaccinated. Unless every child is vaccinated, the threat of polio disease remains,” states Madina.