Generation long life
Achieving vaccine equity through community
Zamboanga City, 11 August 2023 – Immunization days are not typically momentous occasions for most, but for Lakija, 32, lining up shoulder-to-shoulder with other caregivers is a generational milestone: her nine-month-old son had just received his first vaccine shot — the first in their family to have ever done so. It is also the first time Lakija and her children had stepped foot in the barangay health center.
After being forcibly evicted from their previous home a few months prior, a common predicament experienced by indigenous people in the area, Lakija’s family and hundreds of others from their community settled along the remote coasts of Arena Blanco, Zamboanga City a few kilometers away from the city center.
To the community, they remain as outsiders — typical transient groups expected to move and follow the flow of tides and seasons as they depend on fishing as their main source of subsistence. Lakija’s group do not speak the language fluently nor carry any proof of citizenship. They are often far removed from the target clientele of essential government services such as vaccination — as are thousands of their fellow Badjaos, one the most disadvantaged ethnic groups in the country.
When the request to vaccinate her child was extended by a social mobilizer trained by UNICEF and HDES, Lakija, though highly resistant at first due to unfamiliarity of the process, eventually accommodated the invitation.
Equity through community
Despite limited access to health services, Lakija understood the threat of vaccine-preventable diseases. She recalled an instance in her younger years when measles spread in the community, “none of the children got the vaccine then,” Lakija shared, “almost all the children caught it.”
Remote Arena Blanco has had chronically dismal immunization coverage for years. COVID-19 worsened these equity gaps, limiting further the capacity of local health units to reach out to marginalized groups like the Badjaos, as they grapple with competing health priorities.
UNICEF, through development partner Human Development and Empowerment Services (HDES), supports the government to solve these gaps by empowering local communities in raising homegrown health champions, strengthening capacity of local health personnel to address barriers faced by vulnerable groups empathically and effectively, and building strong and sustainable local networks by pushing advocacy efforts and multi-level partnerships.
One of these community initiatives was an activation-cum-vaccination event organized by the Zamboanga City Health office to boost the routine immunization coverage in the area. It aimed to connect members from the Tausug, Sama, and Badjao communities with local barangay officials, health staff, and religious leaders who advocate for children’s health. UNICEF and HDES supported these engagement activities by providing social mobilization support and targeting parents and caregivers of the growing number of defaulters and zero-dose children, or those who have yet to receive a single dose of much-needed vaccines.
Through this engagement, the local health center proudly recorded a 146% accomplishment rate in vaccinating target vaccine-eligible children in the community, majority of whom are defaulters and zero-dose children.
Shared challenges, shared solutions
Among the leaders supporting these activities was Adzmir Abdulaup, a community Imam and staunch health advocate in Arena Blanco. “A partnership between health and religion is vital,” Adzmir explains, “because maintaining good health is a form of worship.”
He had already been a local vaccine champion through an advocacy engagement with UNICEF a few years back to mitigate measles and polio outbreak.
Adzmir now serves as a walking testimonial to how sustained engagement efforts of various community sectors bear lasting and empowering results. He did not hesitate to extend his support to catch-up efforts when tapped again by UNICEF, HDES, and the local barangay health center.
He supports local health initiatives such as addressing hesitancy, especially among groups sharing the same Islamic faith like the Badjaos and other ethnic groups. “We help by covering the areas they cannot reach,” he proudly shares.
His deep commitment in this advocacy is rooted from his own experiences as a father.
“All three of my children did not receive vaccination,” Adzmir shares, “so all of them caught measles when they were little. We are grateful they did not suffer severely. That’s when I learned the value of vaccines. This is why I am committed as a partner and advocate for health.”
Adzmir is one of the 2,150 community and local leaders engaged by UNICEF and HDES as advocacy allies to raise vaccine coverage in the area for both routine immunization and COVID-19. With support from partners such as USAID, UNICEF remains committed to provide holistic support to the national immunization program, which includes empowering champions like Adzmir in delivering vaccines to every child — looking after the most at-risk, most vulnerable, and marginalized populations like the Badjao community.
“I used to keep my reservations on vaccines,” confessed Lakija, “but I am thankful we were reached and welcomed warmly in the health center.”
With the support from the community and local leaders like Adzmir, Lakija pledges it would not be the last time her young son would get life-saving vaccines: “I want my children to grow up healthy and vaccinated. I want their generation to grow strong and resilient, free from diseases.”