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At a glance: Niger

Communities in West Africa prepare for extensive polio vaccination campaign

© UNICEF Niger/2009/Bisin
Balki Garba, 28, is a mother of four children in Kadamari village, located in Niger's Zinder region. She has vaccinated all of them against polio.

By Sandra Bisin

ZINDER REGION, Niger, 27 February 2009 – In Niger, traditional and religious leaders are at the forefront of communication efforts in the run-up to a synchronized polio vaccination campaign that begins today in West Africa.

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The campaign is part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a partnership spearheaded by the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the US Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention, and UNICEF. It will take place in eight countries: Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Niger and Togo.

Two rounds of immunization are scheduled – the first from today to 2 March and the second from 27 to 30 March.

An important discussion

As he walked towards a recent assembly of traditional chiefs from Kadamari village in the Zinder region of south-eastern Niger, religious leader Malangani Mahama knew his mission would challenge beliefs among some of the village elders.

© UNICEF Niger/2009/Bisin
Religious leader Malangani Mahama educates traditional leaders and heads of households on the importance of polio vaccination in Kadamari village.

"As you know, a polio vaccination campaign is soon due to start in Niger," he began. "Last year, several families within this village refused to immunize their children. It is my responsibility to assure you that there is nothing wrong with the vaccine. It is only meant to save children from a debilitating illness."

With that, an important discussion started.

Misconceptions about polio vaccine

Health officials have long faced difficulties in conservative areas of south-eastern Niger, where many parents continue to refuse to immunize their children, believing the oral vaccine drops will make them impotent when they grow up or will cause other disabilities.

"In our village, people are convinced that the vaccine renders children deaf or disobedient," said Lamine Mato, an influential member of the Kadamari community. "It is for this reason that fathers refuse to immunize their children. Women have never been against the vaccination of children."

Kadamari is one of 10 villages in Zinder where refusals were reported during the 2008 polio vaccination campaign. But this year should see some improvement.

Sensitizing communities

Mr. Mahama is one of the 2,400 traditional and religious leaders who were trained in 2008, with UNICEF's support, to sensitize communities on the importance of polio immunization.

© UNICEF Niger/2009/Bisin
The traditional chiefs' and elders' assembly in Kadamari village.

"Fortunately, opinion leaders in Kadamari have understood the importance of vaccinating their children and hopefully when the campaign starts, they will welcome the polio vaccination teams in their village," said Mr. Mahama.

More than 3,000 community mobilizers have been making door-to-door visits ahead of the vaccination campaign, to tell families what to expect and ensure that parents will welcome vaccination teams within their homes.

In most cases, these mobilizers are women. In some places – such as the village of Ian Koublé (in the Haussa language, "the village of locked-up women"), where a conservative form of Islam is practiced – male mobilizers are required to interact with men.

Promising signs in Kadamari

Thanks to mobilization efforts, it seems that Kadamari village is on the right path for achieving its vaccination-for-all target, as polio immunization is already a reality for some of the families.

"Every time there is a vaccination campaign, women should bring their children for vaccination," said Balki Garba, 28, a mother of four. "When a child gets sick, it becomes a problem for the whole family."

Inroads are also being made via the careful placement of media messages, through radio and TV spots, resulting in increased acceptance of the polio vaccine by parents.

Coordinated in Niger by the Ministry of Health (with UNICEF's support), the World Health Organization and other partners since 1997, the national immunization days will organize distribution of more than 4.7 million oral polio vaccine doses for the first round alone. The aim is to reach more than 4.2 million children up to the age of five.




18 February 2009: UNICEF correspondent Elizabeth Kiem reports on efforts to maximize participation in an eight-country polio vaccination campaign in West Africa.
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