No role left for Unicef in social mobilisation in anti-polio campaign

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Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR: The Emergency Operational and Security Guidelines issued by the government for polio vaccination after the killing of 15 people in Karachi and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has ended the role of Unicef in social mobilisation campaigns, officials claimed.

The Unicef, which is supporting the government in polio eradication in the country, had signed a contract with the government of Pakistan and CHIP Training and Consulting (private) Limited under which the former had pledged Rs230 million to create demand for oral polio vaccine (OPV) in the 33 ‘high risk’ districts of the country.

Since last year, the Unicef had created Communication Network (COMNet) by recruiting 1,072 communication officers at the district and union council level on lucrative salaries, but the security guidelines had ended their role.

“There is no role for about 204 COMNet staff recruited in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and 144 in Federally Administered Tribal Areas after the security guidelines. Majority of them received salaries for doing nothing,” the officials said.

The COMNet staff doesn’t come under the supervision of the health department due to which they don’t have any role left for them after the deterioration of security situation.

The sources said that according to the guidelines, the campaigns would now be spearheaded by deputy commissioners in districts and they would decide about schedule of the campaigns. Earlier, the COMNet staff ran social mobilisation campaigns before the immunisation, which included pasting of banners and organising walks to promote OPV, but now they had been sidelined.

The guidelines ask the COMNet staff to avoid visiting the vaccinators during door-to-door campaign. “Under the guidelines, they are supposed to address refusal clusters, but there are already Union Council Polio Eradication Committees (UPECs) for this task,” they said. Also, the health department has been advised to give greater role to the local influential people in tackling polio refusal cases.

According to the guidelines, the communication activities should be integrated with district administrations to address the localised demands of the new vaccination strategy.

“No COMNet, vaccinators or campaign-specific overt messages to be featured on publicity materials and the social mobilisation should be geared up to encourage parents to take children to the nearest health facility if they don’t come across vaccinators,” state the guidelines.

Instead, the government wants the district Khateebs to issue instructions to prayer leaders for making polio campaign announcements. The focus has shifted to strategic partnerships with religious leaders, local media, parliamentarians, motorway police, highway police, transporters associations, Pakistan Paediatrics Association, Pakistan Medical Association and general medical practitioners.

The community representatives to be identified by the UPEC will participate in security assessments by providing input to the police and it has been made mandatory. Besides, polio vaccination activities would be increased at the basic health units, rural health centres and fixed vaccination centres.

All vaccinators have been directed to carry identification cards and show them to parents during door-to-door visits, but these should not be displayed to minimise risk.

The officials said that interpersonal communication skills of members of vaccination teams would also be improved through trainings.

When contacted for his comments, Unicef Pakistan spokesman Azmat Abbas said that the COMNet staff was still active, but had been advised to keep low profile in the present situation.

“They are supposed to create demand for vaccination in coordination with the districts and UPECs. They are also playing their role in addressing refusal cases,” he told Dawn. Mr Abbass said that the Unicef would continue to support the government’s efforts in vaccination.

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