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Central African Republic

In Central African Republic, polio eradication is a national priority

Leonie Gnapelet, with three of her six children in their home in Bangui, Central African Republic. She has ensured that all her children are vaccinated against polio.

The first-ever World Immunization Week takes place from 21-28 April 2012. UNICEF offices around the world are engaging in immunization campaigns and raising awareness about the importance of vaccines to child survival. UNICEF is the world’s largest buyer of vaccines for the world’s poorest countries, and has been supplying vaccines to children for over 50 years.

By Linda Tom

BANGUI, Central African Republic, 20 April 2012 – At 7 a.m. one Sunday, the Mamadou-Mbaiki Heath Centre is buzzing with activity. Insulated boxes are being filled with cooling packs and polio vaccines. Vaccination teams – consisting of a vaccinator, a social mobilization specialist and a volunteer – are preparing to depart, getting an early start to the third day of the three-day National Polio Vaccination campaign.

During the campaign, the teams spread out, travelling from house to house, and to schools, train stations, churches, mosques and wherever else children might be found, vaccinating all the children they encountered against the polio virus.

“My son did not even cry when he was vaccinated. He is a smart boy,” Leonie Gnapelet said with pride after her 3-year-old son received the vaccine. “I have two boys and four girls, and now all my children are vaccinated. I know the benefits of immunization because I was trained as a childcare worker."

Social mobilization critical

Yet not all parents are convinced of the benefits of the polio vaccine. Rumours that the vaccine will make children sick have led two parents in Ms. Gnapelet’s neighbourhood to refuse to allow their children to be immunized.

“After my child was vaccinated, he got diarrhoea and I had to bring him to the health clinic. It costs me 1000 CFA (approximately US$2) to see a doctor, and then I also needed to buy medication,” one of the parents explained. While a small percentage of children do suffer from these side effects, the benefits of immunization far outweigh the risks, yet persistent misinformation and lack of access to health services contributes to vaccine refusal.

Polio can be disabling or deadly and is highly contagious; in crowded neighbourhoods like Ms. Gnapelet’s, refusing vaccination can jeopardize not only the individual but also others in the community.

Leonie Gnapelet's children stand in front of their home in Bangui, Central African Republic. Ms. Gnapelet's 3-year-old son (front) has just received the oral polio vaccine.

Social mobilization is crucial to the success of the vaccination campaign. UNICEF is engaging with young people, media, and community, religious and political leaders to increase awareness of the campaign and to ensure that parents and caregivers understand the benefits of immunization.

“We need to present parents with the facts,” said Claudine Madazou, a vaccinator in Bangui. “We have to go door-to-door and help parents understand the risks of not vaccinating their children. I also live in this area, so these are all my neighbours. I can do it because this is where I live.”

Private sector actors are also playing a role. Mobile phone companies in the country, Azur, Telecel, Orange and Moov, are sending free SMS messages to all subscribers with updates about the polio campaign, urging all recipients to ensure their children are vaccinated.
A national priority

These efforts are a response to four cases of polio reported in the country in 2011, prompting the government to declare a national emergency, placing polio eradication at the highest level of importance.

The country is particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease, sharing numerous borders with countries where the wild polio virus is still circulating. And years of conflict and insecurity have destroyed much of the infrastructure in affected areas, leaving even the most basic health services out of the reach of the majority of Central African Republic’s 4.4 million people.

Even in the capital, health facilities are overcrowded, much of the medical equipment is outdated, and trained staff and medicines are in short supply. Consequently, an estimated 159 out of 1,000 children in the country will die before their fifth birthday, mainly from preventable diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea, respiratory infections, malnutrition and measles.

The immediate priorities are to ensure sustained national immunization campaigns and to strengthen routine immunization to protect against the outbreak of disease. Furthermore, innovative and effective methods need to be implemented to ensure health services are accessible to all communities, with a special emphasis on hard-to-reach populations living in conflict and post-conflict zones.

“We all need to be educated on the risks of diseases like polio. Our lack of knowledge is what is keeping Central Africans from advancing,” said Ms. Gnapelet.



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