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At a glance: Liberia

Tackling polio in Liberia

© UNMIL/Eric Kanalstein
Mothers in Liberia line up to have their children immunized against polio during the 3rd National Immunization Days of 2005.

By Patrick Slavin

MONROVIA, Liberia, 8 December 2005 – The final push in this year’s battle to eradicate polio in Africa begins on 9 December with the fourth round of National Immunization Days (NIDs). These campaigns have been synchronized across up to 23 African countries polio in the course of 2005. 

Although there has been no case of polio registered in Liberia for more than three years, keeping the virus at bay in such a war-ravaged country takes more than vaccines alone. It also takes a personal commitment from all stakeholders – government, community leaders, parents, caregivers, social mobilizers, and vaccinators – to have every child five years old and younger immunized against polio.

Enthusiastic social mobilizers from Liberia’s 15 counties are blending modern communication techniques with Liberia’s traditional customs and practices, including the use of song and drama, pulling out all the stops to communicate the polio vaccination messages across this west African nation.

“My advice to parents is to take their children for the polio vaccine because polio is a dangerous disease. It cripples children and in some instances kills them,” said Julie Endee, head of Liberia’s National Immunization Days (NIDs) Social Mobilization Campaign.

© UNMIL/Eric Kanalstein
A Liberian child receives the polio vaccine from USAID Mission Director Wilbur Thomas.

Angela Kearney, UNICEF Representative in Liberia said, “Joining the chorus from mosques to churches and community meetings, the word about the polio campaign has gone out to every town and village in Liberia.

“Right now many UN agencies are helping the Ministry of Health in Liberia’s NIDs,” said Kearney. “The United Nations Mission in Liberia has provided helicopters for transporting vaccines and has helped to hook up generators to ensure the vaccines stay cold. The World Food Programme and other agencies have all made available cars and trucks to help vaccines and vaccinators reach the children. All of us working together can really make a difference. Also NGOs are part of this work. International and national NGOs, church-based organisations, community groups like the Scouts, YMCA and YWCA are helping us. It’s a real team effort.”

With the support of the National Transitional Government of Liberia and the United Nations four rounds of polio vaccinations are being administered this year. The first two were held in February and April, and more than a million children were reached. The third round of the campaign took place from 11-15 November, and the final round is scheduled to take place from 9-13 December. It is hoped that another million children will be protected against the virus.

Trekking many hours to reach children in remote corners

With funding and facilitation support from UNICEF, more than 60 social mobilizers and vaccination supervisors from across Liberia were trained in communication skills. These social mobilizers then returned to their communities to impart their new skills to a combined total of 603 social mobilizers, who were deployed across the country to broadcast the polio vaccination message – even going door-to-door making sure that families were ready for the NIDs in November and then December.

 “It’s good that we’ve had this training,” said Sammy Konah, a vaccination supervisor from western Gbarpolu County. “The skills being acquired here will be useful not only for the NIDs, but also for the routine immunization.”

In a land of broken infrastructure, social mobilizers and vaccinators have to trek for long hours crossing through jungles and rivers to reach children in the remotest parts of Liberia.

“It’s tough, but it is the cause of our children,” said Sarah Guwaye, a NIDs social mobilizer in Rivercess County, 139 miles southeast of Liberia’s capital of Monrovia. “My team needs to walk for up to 24 hours through thick bush and crossing the Cestos River to reach Yarnee, one of the districts of Rivercess County.” 

UNICEF and its partners, including the World Health Organization, continue to provide support to the national social mobilization programme, with the goal of increasing community ownership, strengthening political will and commitment, and mobilizing individuals, families and communities to support this mass immunization. More importantly, this support tries to enlist the participation of local communities in planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating of the campaign.

Rachel Bonham Carter contributed to this story.




9 December 2005:
UNICEF correspondent Rachel Bonham Carter reports on this year’s upcoming fourth round of National Immunization Days in Liberia.

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