By Guy Hubbard
KASAMBONDO VILLAGE/NYUNZU/MUKAWA VILLAGE, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 27 February 2012 – Peddling by hand, Mulasi Huesseini forces her wheelchair through the sand and into the eastern village of Kasambondo. Her friends walk alongside, carrying their babies. One of them also carries Ms. Husseini's 4-month-old son, Lubumba.
|VIDEO: 20 February 2012 - UNICEF reports on UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow's visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to promote polio vaccination. Watch in RealPlayer|
They are going to the health centre, where, today, health workers are vaccinating children against a variety of diseases – including the polio that paralyzed Ms. Husseini.
Protection from a deadly disease
Mothers jostle to get their infants weighed and vaccinated. In two quick jabs, the children are immunized against tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus. The crying babies are then given drops of oral polio vaccine.
For Ms. Husseini, getting her son vaccinated against polio is especially critical.
“I was born healthy and in a good state,” she explained. “I could walk when I was a child, but then I got sick and my legs went numb, and then I couldn't use them anymore.”
She wants a different future for Lubumba. “I brought my baby to be vaccinated because I don't want him to get polio like I did,” she said.
There has been a 99 per cent reduction in reported polio cases worldwide since 1988, and in January of this year, India – one of the last four polio endemic countries in the world – marked its first full year without any cases of the debilitating, and potentially fatal, disease.
But in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), polio is on the rise.
|A child receives an oral polio vaccine during a routine immunization session at the health centre in the town of Nyunzu, in DR Congo. UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow travelled to the country to promote expanded polio eradication efforts.|
The DRC was polio-free between 2000 and 2006. But a weak health system and lack of infrastructure undermined routine immunization coverage, and polio re-emerged. There were 93 recorded cases of the disease last year.
In response, UNICEF and partners are launching an ambitious polio campaign that aims to overcome the country’s broken health system. It also aims to reach unwilling parents and community leaders; in some areas, religious leaders ban mothers from vaccinating their children, saying it goes against their faith.
Mia Farrow advocates vaccination
UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador Mia Farrow visited the country to raise awareness of polio and to encourage parents to vaccinate their children. It's a cause close to her heart; polio has left its mark on her life not once but twice.
“I had polio as a child,” she said. “I was one of the lucky ones who managed to escape without any permanent affect. But my son, who was adopted from India, is paraplegic as a result of polio.”
In the town of Nyunzu, Ms. Farrow spoke to Addo Nkolo, who, on her pastor's advice, decided not to vaccinate her daughter. It is a choice she has come to regret; 3-year-old Lea contracted polio and is now paralyzed.
She also spoke to Marco Kyabuta, a spiritual leader in Mukawa Village, who is one of several religious leaders in the area who refuse to allow followers to vaccinate their children.
“The best medicine, the only medicine, is God,” Mr. Kyabuta said.
“But man – with God’s help – has invented many things… including remedies from terrible diseases that can save children from a lot of suffering,” replied Ms. Farrow, attempting to reason with him.
Despite her arguments, Mr. Kyabuta remained unswayed, and the children of his congregation, unvaccinated and vulnerable.
Taking on enormous challenges
The polio campaign, which kicks off on the 28 February, will face enormous challenges. But if the world is to become polio-free, children in the hardest-to-reach places, like the DRC, must be vaccinated. There is no other option.
“The vaccination campaigns are very important to get launched here in a big way because there's polio here – there's a lot of polio here,” Ms. Farrow said. “And children have a lot of challenges here anyway, and one we can eliminate is polio.”