One of UNICEF’s roles in the global effort to eradicate polio by 2005 is to lead communication efforts. Since this is an eradication effort (rather than disease control), one major strategy is periodic, nation-wide immunization campaigns called National Immunization Days (NID). This means that teams of immunizers go house-to-house in those countries where the wild polio virus is still circulating. This strategy brings with it both managerial and community-based communication challenges.
To address these challenges, UNICEF coordinates the training and supervision of thousands of community teams to explain the campaign to families and assure them about immunization safety. UNICEF and local partners also work closely with social and religious groups to actively support the eradication effort. These communication activities are monitored to provide impact data that, in turn, are a guide to how these efforts can be improved. Improving communication efforts is important not just for the polio eradication effort but also for the ongoing campaigns for measles and neonatal tetanus immunization.
Communities and communication: a powerful partnership
Alongside these specific campaigns is UNICEF’s ‘Immunization Plus’ programme to immunize all children against five childhood diseases and to begin Vitamin A supplementation in the first 12 months of life. Even if polio is eliminated and measles and neonatal tetanus are brought under control, this routine immunization programme for children under one year old is crucial to sustaining advances made in disease control. Children are being born every day and so the programme must be designed to function over the long term.
One major challenge is for communities to take an active role in the immunization service in their area. Sometimes this is from a fixed health facility such as a clinic. In other cases, mobile teams periodically visit outlying or nomadic groups. Communities and services can work together in several ways, including shaping the service to fit community norms and rhythms, keeping track of eligible children, exchanging information about service availability and the importance of immunization, clarifying false information and dispelling rumours.
UNICEF’s communication efforts contribute to the goal of improving immunization coverage by fostering the mutual exchange of information between health services and communities.