Zimbabwe: Child Health Days focus on polio vaccinations

By Tsitsi Singizi

HARARE, Zimbabwe, 28 June 2007 - On cue the mothers clutch their babies and fall in with military precision. Vaccine cold boxes are lined up in the shade alongside them. Within a few minutes, a classroom has been transformed into an outreach immunisation point for Zimbabwe's biannual child health days.

The Child Health Days campaign will reach two million Zimbabwean children this week. All will receive a polio vaccination.

Child Health Days is an intensive campaign with US $1 million spent on vaccines, logistics and staff time. Hundreds of health workers and volunteers have been trained and supported by UNICEF and the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare. Together they will conduct outreach activities, as children are protected from tuberculosis, measles, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B and polio.

The campaign gets underway

Elizabeth Chifuna, the Nursing Sister in charge in the classroom, braces herself for another busy afternoon. Yesterday the team of three immunised more than 3,000 children in eight hours. She wears a steady smile as she addresses the mother in the queue, assuring the few who have misplaced their health cards that they too will be attended to.

It is day three of the Child Health Days Campaign and community mobilisers are chanting the gospel of immunisation. Religious leaders echo the message, encouraging mothers to immunise their children.

Granny Elizabeth Mandaza, who accompanies her grandson Edwin, is a firm believer in the gospel: "I have seen my children suffer the terrible measles. Another walks with a limp because of polio. I know immunisation can save lives and I am happy now that Edwin will be immunized against all these illnesses."

Health workers and community volunteers join together

Across the country, the determination of health workers and the immense generosity of the community volunteers in the Child Health Days Campaign is evident at immunisation posts, public health facilities, schools, township centers and churches.

On the other side of town, at Seke District Hospital just outside the capital, Nursing Sister Zuze gives the two drops of the oral polio vaccine to each child. Here the queue also snakes into the yard. "We are being overwhelmed by the response," she says. "We have been starting the vaccination at 7:30 in the morning and finishing at 7:00 pm everyday, but no one is missing out."

The high demand combined with the unflagging responsiveness of the health care workers and volunteers will give Zimbabwe a critical boost in its effort to improve child survival and quell any potential polio threat .

Timing is critical

The Child Health Days come at a critical time, as families are under ever-greater pressure from record high inflation and unemployment. In terms of pencentage, Zimbabwe also has the highest number of orphans in the world.

"This campaign is a critical boost to health services that are under great stress in Zimbabwe," said UNICEF representative in Zimbabwe, Dr. F Kavishe. "The nationwide campaigns are the single most important support towards reducing child illnesses and deaths in Zimbabwe."

Past child health drives have proven the campaign method is highly successful. Recent campaigns have boosted Vitamin A coverage from less than 10 per cent in 2005 to over 80 per cent today. Overall immunisation coverage, which had dropped by almost 50 per cent, has once again reached 70 per cent. The Ministry of Health and Child Welfare has also recorded a decline in measles and malaria cases.

However, there is still more to be done. Zimbabwe must invest in the health delivery system and support those on the ground who, like Sisters Chifuna and Zuze,continue to defy hardships for the children of Zimbabwe.