Children Support the Polio Campaign in Balochistan
By Antonia Paradela
Quetta, Balochistan. May 2007. It was an unusual kind of rally but one that conveyed a powerful message.
A dozen of children affected by polio on their wheelchairs were at the front of a bicycle rally organised by the Balochistan Boys Scouts Association in the capital of the Balochistan province Quetta, in the west of Pakistan. Their objective was to raise public awareness about polio and the urgency to achieve the eradication of the disease from Pakistan.
"This campaign is important, as it is taking place in the high-risk districts of the country," Melissa Corkum, a UNICEF polio programme communication officer. More than 12 million children were targeted to be immunised against polio in the May campaign as part of the Pakistan's overall efforts to eradicate the disease. "This campaign is important, as it is taking place in the high-risk districts of the country," Melissa Corkum, a UNICEF polio programme communication officer.
UNICEF in partnership with the World Health Organisation (WHO) supports the government of Pakistan in the polio campaign. UNICEF procures the vaccine and works on community mobilisation. The campaigns are reaching a vast majority of the children under five. About 97 per cent were vaccinated in Quetta in the April campaign, while 95 per cent of the children were reached in Killa Abdullah, a district in northern Balochistan where some families reject the vaccine due to misconceptions. But still it is vital to reach every child under five during each round. Only then could polio be finally be eradicated from Pakistan.
Dr Gul Sabeen from UNICEF and her team of six social mobilisers concentrate their efforts in talking to community leaders in Quetta and in addressing the refusals during and after the campaign. They also worked with school children. One of the sessions took place in Kachi Baig Shahin School. They sat with a group of girls and boys from grades 7 and 8 and told them about the importance of immunisation to combat a disease that has been eradicated except in four countries: India, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The children then talked to their classmates and also shared the information with their families and friends. Abdul Razik, who is in class 7, has seen the consequences of polio first hand. “My cousin Imran was affected by polio as a small child and cannot walk. While he has a wheelchair, he usually drags himself on the floor with his arms”.
Shakila, 15, and Nasra, 16, support the campaign as vaccinators during every round in the mixed Christian and Muslim neighbourhood of Issa Nagri. They are one of the key of the successful reach of the programme in Pakistan. Female teams get unhindered access to households, an advantage in areas were traditions bar men to enter in contact with women who are not part of the family. For Shakila, who is in grade 8th, this is her eighth campaign. When she finishes her studies, she would like to be a female paramedic in her community, also know in Pakistan as a Lady Health Worker. Nasra is in 10th grade and would like to become a teacher. The girls know the area well and practically all the parents let them vaccinate their children. They receive for their work 150 Pakistani rupees (about US 2.5 dollars) per day.
The polio campaigns in Pakistan pose immense logistical challenges. The teams of vaccinators have three days to reach every child under five in the communities and two days more to address the refusal and vaccinate the children who missed the polio drops. Reaching nomad populations is also a challenge like a large group of families from the neighbouring Sindh province that set their camps in Quetta during the summer months. This time the vaccinators reached them the first day and the children show proudly their marked finger.