Village chief backs polio vaccination
Encouraging communities to protect their children from polio
Group Village Head Mafunga of Chikwawa District, southern Malawi, was listening to the radio when a door-to-door vaccination team briefed him that only one child had not been immunised against polio.
The no-easy feat countered the community leader’s goal for every child in the village to be vaccinated.
"The radio is my trusted news source, including the return of polio in the country,” he said. “I expect parents to present all children aged 15 and below to vaccinators as a child in the neighbouring Blantyre City was recently found with polio, which causes death and permanent paralysis,".
GVH Mafunga urgently departed for the unvaccinated child's home to share the benefits of the vaccine against the resurgence of the disease Malawi kicked out in 1992.
The 80-year-old witnessed how mass vaccination campaigns helped eradicate the highly contagious virus.
However, the disease resurfaced last year when a three-year-old child in Lilongwe's capital was found with wild poliovirus.
"It was shocking news," says the octogenarian chief. "When I was a boy, polio used to paralyse many children because there was no vaccine. Now we can defeat it again if we vaccinate every child."
Unvaccinated children are potential pockets for future outbreaks, he warns.
The Ministry of Health has embarked on a campaign to vaccinate about nine million children.
The traditional leader rallies village heads, parents, and religious to allow children to receive the vaccine. He also shares accurate information about the vaccine with children in the neighbourhood.
"I will do anything to protect children from preventable diseases that may affect their lives and future. This is our only chance to defeat polio," he says.
Born in 1943, Mafunga took over the village headship from his deceased father in 1970.
"I’ve to put my community first, especially the vulnerable. Future generations will not judge us kindly if we don't protect our children now," he reasons.
The community leader used his influence and proximity to reason with the parents of the only unvaccinated child in his village though their religion forbids modern medicine, including vaccines.
He explains: "The polio-free status Malawi has enjoyed for 30 years confirms that a future without polio begins with the oral vaccine," he explains.
Since February 2022, Malawi has implemented four emergency polio vaccinations targeting about three million children below five.
The fifth targets children aged 15 following the 14-year-old detected in Blantyre.
"Such stories remind me of my power. I use my influence and experience to remind my community how the vaccine helped us overcome polio many years ago. We can do it again if we unite against polio," Mafunga states.
He discusses the vaccination’s schedules and rewards during community gatherings, including funerals and village development committees.
The Ministry of Health, with support from UNICEF Malawi, trained community influencers, including traditional and religious leaders, to mobilise people to ensure every child receives the vaccine. This comes in support of the Government of Malawi's urgent efforts to stop polio.
UNICEF has distributed 10.8 million polio vaccine doses to all health facilities nationwide.
"Chikwawa DHO prepositioned the polio vaccine in all our health facilities, but we needed community leaders' support to increase their uptake. Before the campaign took off, we oriented and engaged the opinion leaders to mobilise the people and ultilise the pre-ordered vaccine effectively," says district immunisation coordinator Ebenezer Banda.
The district focal person in the national Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) thanked the chiefs working closely with vaccination teams in the Tithetse Polio (End Polio) campaign.
"As vaccination teams go door to door, we acknowledge that community leaders are gatekeepers who live with the households where the children are, and many accept what their leaders approve. So, we can't create polio-free communities without them," Banda says.
Mitondo health post deployed 13 vaccination teams targeting at least 4 000 children every day.
"Chiefs like GVH Mafunga constitute a trusted voice in the initiative to protect children's health in their communities. They help mobilise the people and tackle myths, misconceptions, and misconceptions, especially now that people have been subjected to multiple vaccines within a short time," says Peter Odilo, one of the nine health surveillance assistants at the facility.
A day before the door-to-door vaccination campaign, community mobiliser Frazer Twoboy informs village heads and other opinion leaders.
He says: "We tell them ’we are coming to vaccinate children in your village' so they can support our efforts. The success of the polio vaccination hinges on their endorsements and involvement," he says.
His team vaccinated 310 children in Mafunga.
Happy Elton, a 12-year-old Standard Three boy at Olore primary school, received the vaccine alongside his sister Eliza and the chief's grandchildren to avert the possible devastating effects of polio on his generation.
"I dream of becoming a doctor to save lives. The vaccine will protect me from polio, which paralyses body parts. Health workers, together with our chief, say the vaccine is helpful. They cannot recommend something likely to harm us. So, I brought my sister because I love her, and I cannot expose her to anything likely to harm her life or future," says the sixth born in a family of eight.