By Cheryl Uys-Allie
N’DJAMENA, Chad, 23 September 2011 – Chad’s fight to eradicate polio has become a national emergency as the number of registered polio cases has risen to over 90 to date this year.
|VIDEO: UNICEF's Cheryl Uys-Allie reports on Chad’s increased capacity to combat polio infections through the STOP Program, which deploys volunteers to provide vital support in the development, implementation and evaluation of vaccination campaigns in the field. Watch in RealPlayer|
A recent report by the Independent Monitoring Board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative expressed concern that Chad, like other affected countries, may not meet the global goal of eradicating the disease by 2012 unless effective actions are rapidly put into practice.
In response to the escalating numbers of polio infections, the country’s government and partner agencies and donors are stepping up their technical support and social mobilization to combat further infections.
Part of this strategy is the Stop Transmission of Polio (STOP) Programme which deploys volunteers to support countries with their polio eradication efforts.
STOP is part of the Global Immunization Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from the United States. The CDC, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and Rotary International are partners - all with the same goal of ridding the world of polio.
“The reason why we focus on polio now instead of the other diseases for eradication is because polio is eradicable,” explained UNICEF Programme Communications Specialist, Jeffrey Bates. “It’s something that we have the means, the technologies and opportunity to stop forever.”
Widespread poverty and past conflict in Chad have contributed to a weak healthcare system. As a result, the country has a low routine immunization coverage compounding into one of the highest rates of unvaccinated children in the world. STOP volunteers therefore provide vital support in the development, implementation and evaluation of vaccination campaigns in the field. At the same time they help overcome some of the cultural barriers which prevent people from vaccinating their children.
|© UNICEF video/2011|
|Chadian mothers waiting to immunize their children against polio.|
“STOP volunteers need to be foremost technically competent with a right amount of maturity to work in an environment that has a lot of challenges,” stressed Mr. Bates. “But at the same time they have to be robust and flexible enough to work in very difficult field positions.”
Motivation is key
The average day for a STOP volunteers starts bright and early at 7:00 AM and ends when the job at hand is done. Conditions are tough, especially the heat. Volunteers are often required to travel to remote parts of the country where they spend months working for rewards, which are not measured in financial terms.
Raabi Diouf is a STOP volunteer from Senegal working on polio eradication in Chad. On one recent mission, she travelled from the capital, N’Djamena, to Moundou in the south.
Beginning her journey on newly tarred roads, the further from N’Djamena she drove, the roads became dusty and undefined. Passing through numerous villages, she finally arrived at one of the last places on earth where polio continues to paralyze children.
|© UNICEF video/2011|
|STOP volunteers know that 100% of children who have not been vaccinated are at risk of contracting polio, and that effectively immunizing all children is the only way to eradicate polio.|
“For those who want to join STOP you have to be motivated,” she said. “You really have to believe in what we do because working in the field sometimes is not easy.”
Fears, rumours and myths spread as quickly as the virus the campaign is trying to stop. STOP volunteers are often faced with very difficult questions in the field. Raabi met one mother who believed her baby contracted polio from the vaccine. Volunteers are required to help community members understand the benefits of vaccination while attempting to help them overcome some of their concerns. One critical way of achieving this is by working closely with community leaders who have become integral to running effective community vaccination campaigns.
Ridding Chad and the world of polio will take commitment from both internal and external stakeholders. On the ground, faced with the effects of polio on a daily basis, Raabi Diouf is overwhelmingly positive.
“I am optimistic because there are countries that have managed, by combing forces, to put an end to polio,” she said. “I think that here, if we do the same thing we can succeed in eradicating polio.”