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At a glance: Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste: Taking pre-emptive action against polio

© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2005/ See
Josefa Exposto, from Timor-Leste, comforts her children after vaccination. More than 1,000 health workers and 1,600 volunteers at 800 immunization posts across the country helped carry out this year’s campaigns.

By Bridgette See

Timor-Leste’s closest neighbour Indonesia is grappling with a polio outbreak: More than 250 cases have been reported there so far this year. Timor-Leste itself is vulnerable: With only 57 per cent of the country’s children under 2 years of age immunized against the disease, and with less than half of the population using clean water and toilets, it could easily become a hotbed for the virus.

As a pre-emptive measure the government of Timor-Leste, with support from UNICEF and other partners, has carried out two National Immunization Days to protect over 180,000 children below 5 years of age against polio.

DILI, Timor-Leste, 9 November 2005 – Two-year-old Joanila Mendonca began squirming in her mother’s arms when she saw the nurse approaching. To her, a nurse meant a painful injection – whether or not she carried a needle. So when the nurse began to squeeze her cheeks gently, the toddler let out a sharp wail and screamed in protest.

Her mouth fell wide open – to receive two drops of oral polio vaccine, swiftly dispensed by the experienced nurse.

Her ordeal was over in seconds, but Joanila’s tears continued to flow. Although she had felt no pain, she hated the lingering bitter taste and could not understand why she had to suffer thus. But her mother, Josefa Exposto, knew that this brief discomfort would protect her from polio – a highly infectious disease that attacks the nervous system. Polio can cause total paralysis or even death in a matter of hours within the onset of infection.

© UNICEF Timor-Leste/2005/ See
Josefa registering her three youngest children for vaccination. During the National Immunization Days this year, more than 180,000 Timorese children were protected against polio.

On the lookout: pre-emptive strategies

Although there have been no reported cases of polio in Timor Leste since 1995, the government does not want to take any chances – hence the move to pre-empt any re-emergence of the disease, by carrying out National Immunization days in August and September of this year. More than 1,000 health workers and 1,600 volunteers at 800 immunization posts across the country dispensed the oral polio vaccine. They also used this opportunity to give vitamin A drops to every child.

“Our worry was whether parents in remote villages would bring their children to the health posts” says Arnold Calo-oy, UNICEF EPI Project Officer. “So health workers, together with extensive support from village and sub-village chiefs, carried out outreach efforts to encourage parents to get their children immunized.” 

Vaccination is free

Even though Josefa, who has seven children, did not know the difference between polio and malaria, she was informed by her village chief that the vaccine was necessary to protect her children, and that it was free. During each of the National Immunization days, Josefa was reminded by her neighbours to bring her three youngest children to the health post.

Such efforts have paid off, with 180,912 children immunized by the second immunization round in September – amounting to 102 per cent of the original target.

Routine immunization continues at all health clinics in Timor-Leste, with UNICEF supporting the cold chain system necessary for safe transport and preservation of vaccines, and providing most of the vaccines to protect Timorese children against tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, polio and measles. 



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