A cultural musician drumming up vaccination in The Gambia
Takatiti is a social mobilizer helping build trust and promote vaccination in The Gambia.
In a small community in The Gambia, a polio vaccination team arrives to a rapturous welcome. Children and women jump to their feet, some waving and swinging their arms as they pound their feet on the ground in near perfect sync with the beat of the drum. It is a hot afternoon in Chagai village, located on the south bank of the River Gambia some 200km from Banjul. At 3pm Lamin Keita, 60, still retains the energy that set off the vaccination tour in the morning. Lamin, popularly called Takatiti, a name given to one of his popular songs, is fully circled as he adjusts his beats to respond to the ecstasy and rigor of the dancers.
“When I arrive on the back of a pick-up truck with my megaphone and drums, children from the communities run after us in full excitement and jump up and down and ask me to play my drums,” Takatiti explained after the fanfare doused. By now, the team supervisor had managed to disperse the crowd to ensure that all eligible children were in their homes for the door-to-door vaccination.
This is what Takatiti is best known for – pulling crowds with his drums to communicate important messages like polio vaccinations. For almost four decades, he has toured communities in the region to accompany health workers as they seek to persuade parents and caregivers to vaccinate their children during mass vaccination campaigns like the polio campaign.
If people trust health workers to cure other diseases, then it makes sense to trust the same health workers to protect our children from polio. It is my job to let people know this truth, without offending them, and encourage them to vaccinate their kids.
Local voices are the most powerful voices
Building trust in vaccines among parents and caregivers is the first critical step towards achieving high immunization coverage to stop the spread of polio. Therefore, every polio vaccination effort supported by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has a strong community engagement component because voices of local leaders and influencers like Takatiti are the most powerful in helping allay fears and concerns of parents and caregivers about vaccines.
“I am aware of polio and its terrible consequences,” Takatiti said. “Families hear myths and rumours and get concerned about vaccines but because they already know and trust me, I try my best to give them accurate information and clear their doubts, so that they can vaccinate their children against polio and other dangerous diseases.”
“It’s important to deliver messages that are supported by facts in an effective way”
Days before the start of a polio vaccination campaign and during the campaign itself, Takatiti walks up and down the streets of villages, playing his drums and using his UNICEF-provided megaphone to talk to communities about the dangers of polio to children, how vaccination is the only way to protect them, and that polio vaccines are safe and free.
“I always try to promote peace and healthy life for all. It’s important to deliver messages that are supported by facts in an effective way. The Government and UNICEF provided me correct information and facts about polio and vaccines, so I am happy to volunteer for the campaign.”
A country mobilizes to stop polio
“If people trust health workers to cure other diseases, then it makes sense to trust the same health workers to protect our children from polio. Health workers even give the polio vaccine to their own children – so we should not doubt their good intentions. It is my job to let people know this truth, without offending them, and encourage them to vaccinate their kids,” Takatiti said.
In August 2021, The Gambia declared a national public health emergency in response to outbreaks of non-wild variants of polio in the country.
The Gambian government, with support from WHO, UNICEF, US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and GPEI partners, quickly responded and started preparing for nationwide immunization campaigns – managing supply and safe storage of vaccines, strengthening surveillance and monitoring, training health workers and vaccinators, and engaging with local leaders and influencers to build trust in vaccines.
The country undertook its first national polio vaccination campaign in November 2021 and followed up with a second round in March 2022.
Thanks to thousands of health workers, vaccinators, and community influencers like Takatiti, the vaccination campaigns have reached over 380,000 children aged five years and below in a country of about two million people.