Polio shots liberate Grivin’s smile
Polio vaccine extends to children under 15
School days are happy moments for Grivin Donnex, a Standard Four boy at Olore primary school in Chikwawa district, southern Malawi.
His smile flashes the brightest during social studies classes.
“I love social studies because I want to become a good teacher like Mr. Anthony, our deputy headteacher,” he says, smiling effortlessly.
The 13-year-old learner’s face beamed one chilly morning when he received two drops of oral polio vaccine at his rural school.
The mobile team vaccinated all willing school children under 15 as part of the Tithetse Polio campaign, a national push to kick it out again. The disease may cause death and permanent paralysis when it attacks the brain and nerves.
“My mom tells me that I already received the polio vaccine when I was a baby, but I’m happy to do it again because I hear another child my age has been found with the disease in Blantyre,” he said.
A 14-year-old child in Blantyre City’s most populous township of Ndirande, shattered Grivin’s belief that polio only attacks children under five.
“I first heard the news of the Ndirande child from the health workers today, but I feared for his education and future. I also feared for myself and my schoolmates because we're not safe, too,” he explained.
Polio can cause irreversible paralysis within hours in children aged under 15, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
While there is no cure for the highly infectious virus transmitted through contaminated human stools, it can be prevented through a simple and effective vaccine.
UNICEF is supporting Malawi’s polio vaccination campaign launched by the Ministry of Health and its partners to reach about nine million children aged 15 and below.
The previous four rounds targeted three million children below five years old, but assessments show it only reached 90 percent of them.
During the launch in Ndirande on 12 July 2023, Minister of Health Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda explained why it has become imperative for Grivin and his age group to receive the vaccine without fail.
“Following the case recorded in Blantyre, this group is at an increased risk of catching polio,” she said. She said: “With technical guidance from WHO, we have decided to increase the age to 15 and below to reach as many children as possible.”
During the vaccination campaign, community health workers and volunteers went door to door, vaccinating children at home, in marketplaces, and on the way.
Charles Bizimaki, one of the five health surveillance assistants at Mitondo Health Post, was spotted administering vaccines in Savala, a clustered village in the low-lying district.
He stated: “There is no time to rest as my target is to vaccinate 300 children today. Yesterday, I could only manage 250 because I was busy with routine immunisation for children under five at Savala outreach clinic.
“It’s not easy to vaccinate all children where they live or meet, but I’m determined to accomplish this because our children and future generations will be at risk if we don’t do the right thing now.”
By 2 pm, Bizimaki vaccinated about 180 children, including Grivin’s month-old niece, Trinity.
Her mother Jennifer Mofolo was delighted that the baby, born on 12 June 2023, had been vaccinated against polio.
She explained: “When the vaccination team came home, I couldn’t wait to get my first child vaccinated because I don’t want polio to come closer to her. The health worker wearing a sky-blue uniform assured me that the oral vaccine prepares the child’s immunity for any attack, giving it a healthy start in life.”
Ebenezer Banda, who coordinates the national expanded programme on immunisation in Chikwawa, says vaccinating children beyond health facilities underscores the zeal to ensure everyone is included.
He explained: “It’s vital to ensure every child is vaccinated, including those aged six to 15.
“Chikwawa district health office preordered and prepositioned the polio vaccine in all health facilities because our district is close to Blantyre where the 14-year-old case was found, and shares porous borders with Mozambique where the polio outbreak is also re-emerging.”
Malawi recorded its last polio case in 1992, 30 years before Africa was declared free of indigenous wild polio in August 2020.
The outbreak resurfaced in 2022 when a three-year-old in Lilongwe was found with the contagious poliovirus.
Since then, UNICEF has procured and distributed 10.2 million polio vaccines to all 865 health facilities across Malawi.
“UNICEF supports the Government of Malawi, and its implementing partners in their efforts to immunise every child against polio until the transmission has stopped and a country is certified polio-free again, a job we share with our partners, the WHO, CDC, and other stakeholders of Global Polio Eradication Initiative,” says Saumya Anand, the Chief of Health at UNICEF Malawi.
The support also includes installing 250 new vaccine refrigerators, maintaining 125 old ones, and providing 16 000 vaccine carriers and 130 cold boxes. The cooling facilities keep the vaccine potent until it reaches the children like Grivin, even in hard-to-reach areas.
“Every child has a fundamental right to survive, thrive and grow,” Anand explains. “It’s our joint responsibility to ensure that something as inexpensive, easy to deliver, and effective as vaccination reaches all children at greatest risk and in greatest need.”