How dedicated women mobilizers are helping in the fight against polio – one door at a time

Volunteer community mobilizer in Kaduna State, goes door-to-door to ensure every child is vaccinated against polio

Priyanka Khanna and Jasmine Pittenger
UNICEF Nigeria/Jasmine Pittenger
08 March 2018

Kaduna North, Kaduna, 8 March 2018 - Zulaihatu Abdullahi is very well-known in her community, particularly to the mothers. As a volunteer community mobilizer (VCM) her mission is to try and ensure no child falls victim to polio or any other preventable childhood disease.

Western medicine and immunization programmes continue to be treated with suspicion in some parts of Nigeria. As a ‘change agent’, Zulaihatu goes ‘door to door’ and counsels parents about the dangers of non-compliance.

She is a very familiar face to the 18 year-old mother she is visiting at lunchtime today in a compound off Akotu Street in the densely-populated, peri-urban Kaduna North district of Kaduna State.

‘This used to be a ‘refusal house’,’ Zulaihatu explains at the doorway before announcing her arrival. ‘The father follows a religious sect that forbids western medicine. Even if the kids are really sick, the father still will only take them to a traditional healer. But the mother and I - we came up with a way to give them polio drops and other vaccines.’

The young mother puts down the pole she is using to pound millet and welcomes Zulaihatu after recognising her royal-blue UNICEF hijab. She sits, pulls her own black hijab over her head for cover as she settles down to breastfeed her baby. She has three other small children at home, a fifth on the way and she is new to the area.

‘Before I came here I was rejecting all vaccines,’ she reveals, looking watchful, ‘but because of this woman, Zulaihatu, I decided to accept. She told me the usefulness and I was convinced to do it, but only secretly. Now we do vaccination for all my kids, but we don’t tell my husband,’ she adds. ‘I’m scared my husband will find out,’ she adds quietly, tugging her hijab further down over her forehead.

Thanks to Zulaihatu’s patience to build trust with the younger woman through regular visits, four more children are now protected against polio who might otherwise still be at risk, the mother has gone for one anti-natal care visit and the youngest child has got his routine immunization shots.

‘Sister Zulaihatu was one of the first women I met when we moved here,’ the teenage mother recalls. ‘She came here every day. She told me how she takes care of her own children. What she feeds them. How they all take vaccines. Little by little I started to change my thinking.’

As an experienced VCM, Zulaihatu is trained to make her community aware of a number of key household and parenting practices to keep their children alive and thriving. The list is extensive and includes tips to treat diarrhoea, the importance of hygiene and sanitation, the prevention of malaria, the benefits of neonatal care, exclusive breastfeeding for infants and registering their births.

She is one of the nearly 20,000 UNICEF-trained community mobilizers, influencers and communication experts spread across 14 northern ‘high risk’ Nigerian states where the crippling polio virus persists. With the support of donor and partners including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, CDC, Dangote Foundation, European Union, Rotary, GAVI, JICA, the World Bank and the Governments of Canada, Germany, Japan, and others, the mobilizers are a key part of UNICEF’s ongoing support to the Government of Nigeria's immunization programme.

The dedication of Zulaihatu and her colleagues to advocate in their communities for greater acceptance of immunizations is clearly paying off: as of 7 March 2018, not a single case of polio has been reported in Nigeria in over 16 months. This represents an enormous gain since 2003 when the country accounted for eight out of ten polio cases in Africa.

Despite their achievements, Zulaihatu and other mobilizers are well aware that much is still left to be done in their communities by going from mother to mother, day after day.

‘Every day she comes, our sister Zulaihatu,’ the young mother shakes her head. ‘Every day’.