Ending polio outbreaks in Laos

Reaching every child with polio vaccines

Simon Nazer

24 April 2018

It’s an unseasonably cool morning in Senxay Village, near central Laos, and a good day for health teams to go door to door to vaccinate children against polio. Mothers like 25-year-old Vardy are delighted to see their babies and children vaccinated. “I’m really happy,” she says with a beaming smile while bouncing her 5-month-old baby up and down. “I know after being vaccinated my baby will stay healthy and safe.”

In remote ethnic villages like these, children are often the most at-risk of suffering from preventable diseases caused by bacteria and viruses, and it wasn’t so long ago that tragedy had struck in a nearby village.

In late 2015, an 8-year-old boy suddenly had a high fever and weak limbs. Four days later, he tragically died in hospital from vaccine-derived polio virus.

Reaching every child with vaccines can be a challenge, but it’s critical we immunize our children to stop similar outbreaks

Dr. Inphone Maniseng, Director of the District Health Department
Mothers in a market in Non Hai, Vientiane Province, Lao PDR wait for their children to be vaccinated

With support from UNICEF and WHO, one last push of vaccinations is now taking place in 13 provinces to vaccinate around 460,000 under five to ensure that polio is eradicated once and for all.

Parents like Vardy not only need to take children for vaccinations today but must also understand the need to ensure they keep up with regular immunization schedule. “I now know that vaccination is important to keep my children healthy. I’ll make sure I take them for vaccination and immunization to keep them safe.”

Community participation

5 month old He is vaccinated against polio in Non Hai market by a mobile vaccination team

One big reason for the recent polio outbreak in this part of Laos was, according to village leader Khamphet Chansomphou, because of low awareness about the importance of vaccination in preventing diseases in children. “Raising awareness and explaining the importance of being vaccinated to villagers was really important to ensure they come,” he says in the local health centre.

“They have to clearly understand that while it’s about keeping children healthy, it is also about their education and the economy. Healthy children can go to school and learn, healthy children don’t need costly medicines.”

UNICEF has been working closely with partners to create educational materials in local languages to inform villagers about the importance of vaccination, traveling from village to village to deliver the information, showing videos using mini-projectors and holding open discussions to explain vaccinations.

“By talking to communities, we also get a better understanding of how we can serve them,” says Mr Chansomphou. “It works both ways – it helps us think about how to improve our services and understand people’s needs.”

Xim Dua, 20, and her newly vaccinated son He, 5 months

Polio has now been stopped and children are safe again, but efforts have to be maintained.

Nearby, 20-year-old mother Xim Dua was just stopped by a mobile health team. “This is the first time my 5-month baby has been vaccinated,” she says shyly. “We live a long way from here, I didn’t know.”

Now she knows and after the health team explained to her the need to ensure her baby is vaccinated, she will be back. UNICEF and partners will continue to work hard to ensure they reach every child, no matter where they live.