|© UNICEF Niger/2012/Mistycki|
|Rabi Adamou, a communicator for the Region of Tahoua, speaks to families to raise their awareness about polio in Niger.|
By Véronique Mistycki
KAOURA ALLASSAN, Niger, 13 February 2012 – February 4 saw the launch of a three-day polio immunization campaign, known as Subnational Immunization Days. Children in 21 districts were targeted for vaccination against the paralyzing, and potentially fatal, polio virus.
Rabi Adamou, a communicator for the Health Department of the Region of Tahoua, travelled from village to village to make sure that families were informed of the vaccination teams’ visit and that they understood the importance of getting their children vaccinated.
“Before, villagers were hiding their children so they wouldn’t get vaccinated,” Mrs. Adamou explained. “People said it would get their children sick or that they would lose their fertility. They did not understand what polio was.”
But now, their message has been heard loud and clear.
Mariama Mamoud lives with her three children in the village of Kaoura Allassan, near the border with Nigeria. Since Niger successfully interrupted polio transmission in 2006, the virus has been repeatedly imported from northern Nigeria.
“The town crier went around the village to tell us it is vaccination day, so I am waiting at home,” Mrs. Mamoud said. “I don’t want my children to be missed by the team. Now we understand what polio is, and everybody in the village is on alert.”
Communication key to success
In many rural villages of Niger, communications efforts have played a key role in convincing families of the importance of vaccination.
The involvement of village chiefs and religious leaders has been instrumental in raising awareness, especially among families living in isolated areas or in nomadic groups. In the region of Tahoua, a social mobilization committee has been formed, with religious leaders, spokespersons for nomadic groups and the head of the local Islamic Women Association all participating. Before each campaign, they travel to villages to interact with communities.
“Even though we have gone a long way, communication remains crucial for the success of immunization campaigns,” said Mrs. Adamou. “We don’t face too many refusals anymore, but there is still a lot of work to do to ensure the quality of the campaigns, especially in the most isolated areas.”
|© UNICEF Niger/2011/Nganga-Kongo|
|A vaccination team is posted at a market during the National Polio Vaccination Days to reach children who could not be found at home.|
Prevention is central to communication efforts. Polio is transmitted through contaminated food and water – and in a country where over 90 per cent of rural populations practice open-air defecation, the risk of infection is high.
“We tell the families how their children can catch the disease. We explain them that they have to wash hands before feeding the babies, and that they should keep the ground clean so children crawling on the floor don’t get infected,” Mrs. Adamou said.
Reaching every last child
Even though important progress has been achieved in Niger, there have also been setbacks. As many as eight rounds of National Immunization Days were organized in 2011, and still six cases of polio were confirmed during that year, compared to only two in 2010.
“We have organized so many rounds of vaccinations last year,” explained Dr. Amadou Ousseini, Director of the Health Department of Tahoua. “We dedicated most of our time to these campaigns against polio, but we know that we haven’t managed to reach all the children, and new cases keep being detected.”
A number of villages in Tahoua are located in remote or insecure areas, limiting vaccination coverage. Immunization campaigns there are further complicated by the fact that many families have been forced to migrate because of food insecurity. And nomadic groups, which are numerous in that region, are often hard to locate.
“We are aware of these limits and we are working on specific outreach strategies,” Dr. Ousseini said. “For instance, we always start the campaigns one day early to make sure that we are able to travel to all parts of the region, even the most isolated. We also hire vaccinators among nomadic groups because they know the local languages, and they know where to find their camps. We post vaccination teams at the markets or at key points on the roads, because a lot of people transit there, and these are good spots to catch missed children.”
Full eradication of the virus will only be possible if all children, including those living in the most remote areas, receive the vaccine. UNICEF, the World Health Organization and other partners are working with the government to maintain the quality of immunization campaigns while designing targeted outreach strategies for hard-to-reach children. Only this kind of perseverance will ensure that, one day, the fight against polio is won.