Congo, Democratic Republic of the

In DR Congo, communications efforts are turning back religious resistance to the polio vaccine

By Natacha Ikoli

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 27 June 2012 – Though polio has been eradicated from much of the world, it remains a tragic reality in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where transmission of the virus was re-established in 2006. Since 2010, it has affected nearly 200 people.

UNICEF correspondent Natacha Ikoli reports on efforts to promote polio vaccination among religious communities opposed to the vaccine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Watch in RealPlayer

 

With the support of UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and their partners, the country initiated emergency action plans to address the situation through immunization campaigns and public health programmes.

Yet in spite of multiple countrywide polio vaccination drives in 2011, wild poliovirus remains a threat, in part because some parents continue to refuse to vaccinate their children. Many resisters are fearful of rumors about the vaccine’s side effects or distrust health provider, and in some provinces, parents decline to vaccinate their children out of religious beliefs.

Religious resistance

While Christianity is the predominant religion in the country, many still follow traditional religions, and numerous groups merge Christian tenets with traditional beliefs. Some of these groups strongly resist immunization.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
A polio vaccination campaign in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though polio has been eradicated from much of the world, it remains a tragic reality in DRC.

Such religious resistance to immunization is notable in Nyunzu, a remote, hard-to-reach area. In Mukwaka, on the outskirts of Nyunzu, spiritual leader Marco Kiabuta strongly discourages his followers from using modern health care.

“When there’s a health issue, first and foremost you’ve got to call on the village wise men who will pray over the ill,” he said. In explaining this position, Mr. Kiabuta points to the bible he carries with him at all times. Adherents who don’t improve with prayer are allowed to seek assistance from a doctor, but they often decline certain treatments.

“We refuse to be treated for a disease we don’t recognize,” he said.

Ending vaccine refusal

Those refusing vaccination are only a small segment of Nyunzu’s population, said Mr. Abderrahmane Bocar, an immunization specialist with UNICEF. But it is a wide window of opportunity for poliovirus to enter the community and thrive.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
A polio vaccination campaign in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Polio remains a threat in the country in part because some parents continue to refuse to vaccinate their children.

In remote areas, said Dr. Isaac Mpambu Malanda, a health zone director, people often attribute polio disease to evil spirits. Yet communication and education efforts can have a tremendous impact.

Reaching out to representatives of resistant groups and to community members can dispel negative ideas about the oral polio vaccine. Identifying resistant groups and engaging them in frequent dialogues can prompt them to change their ideas about vaccination and life-saving health care.

In Bas-Congo province, where Dr. Malanda operates, four groups refused vaccination in early 2011. Today, thanks to intense communication efforts, only one religious group continues to stand firm against the polio vaccine.


 

 

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