Polio survivor mom to parents: vaccines protect our children

To be a mother is challenging. To be a mother and a polio survivor like Judith, even more so.

Mary Joy Grefaldo
A mother and her child sitting on the floor with a plush toy
2021/RedAnts and Relief International
28 October 2021

When her son JM first learned how to walk, Judith Waskin, 43, could hardly keep up with her baby. As JM learned to balance his steps, his feet quickly outpaced hers. Unlike other parents, Judith cannot playfully chase after her baby.

To be a mother is challenging. To be a mother and a polio survivor like Judith, even more so.

Judith caught polio at the tender age of 3. Living in a remote barrio in Ubay, Bohol, the family did not have access to essential health services or any information on deadly diseases like polio. When Judith got struck by a high fever as a baby, nobody suspected the chance of a life-threatening disease. It was only until later they would find how Judith’s predicament had no cure but could have been prevented by vaccines.

“I never had a vaccine. We did not have a health center in the barangay and the hospital was too far away. When I got sick, my knees grew too weak to stand. My legs also shortened and soon completely lost their strength. I haven't been able to walk since then.”

A threatening virus

A highly infectious viral disease, poliomyelitis or polio attacks the nervous system and largely affects children under 5 years old. It primarily spreads via feces and thrives in areas with poor hygiene and sanitation. According to WHO, around 9 out of 10 children who are infected by the disease develop mild to no symptoms, while severe infections can lead to permanent paralysis or even death. The most effective way to combat the disease is through complete and timely immunization.

While polio impacted her mobility, Judith pushed forward and soon started her own family. While her struggles rendered her motherhood experiences unique, Judith holds the common dream held dear by every parent: to see their child grow healthy and have a better life.

“I may not have finished my education, but I’m determined to help my son finish his,” Judith shares.

These collective aspirations were threatened when the Department of Health (DOH) announced the resurgence of polio in 2019, after almost two decades of being polio-free. This can be attributed to the increasing number of children missing out on childhood vaccines. In 2018, the Philippines ranked among the top ten countries globally that account for 60 percent of unprotected children from life-threatening diseases such as polio.

Prior to the pandemic, the country has been suffering from a dramatic decline of parents vaccinating their children. In fact, from 70 percent in 2015, the Fully Immunized Child (FIC) coverage – or the percentage of 12-month old infants who had received their required vaccines – dipped at 65 percent in 2020, the lowest to be recorded in decades.

UNICEF Philippines

Averting a health crisis

To control the outbreak on top of a global health crisis, the DOH, in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, launched a series of mass vaccination campaigns to halt polio transmission in communities and avert another impending measles outbreak.

Each round of the campaign targets a 95% coverage among children under 5 years old. The phased approach of the campaign started in NCR and Mindanao, then to the rest of the regions. Overall, the national response was able to administer needed polio doses to almost 13 million children.

In support of these campaigns, UNICEF provided technical support in advocacy, communication, and social mobilization, as well as in vaccine procurement and delivery. To help increase vaccine confidence among parents, UNICEF also assisted the DOH and local government units in training community health workers and social mobilizers on how to communicate the risks of being unvaccinated and address refusals. With the help of partners such as Relief International, community health workers and social mobilizers were deployed to reach the most remote communities and protect every last child with life-saving vaccines.

Communities come together

One of the 1,935 social mobilizers trained by UNICEF was Judith’s sister who serves as a barangay health worker. Upon hearing the news of the local immunization drive from her family, Judith did not hesitate to vaccinate her son.

Judith’s son JM was one of the children who received the polio vaccines through the campaign. Speaking from experience on the value of vaccines, Judith expresses her firm resolve to protect her son.

“I can’t have my son miss his vaccine like I did and let him suffer from polio.”

After 16 months of comprehensive response monitoring, the whole-of-community approach to stop polio soon proved to be a success: by June 2021, WHO marked the end of the polio outbreak.

A joy like no other

This win was celebrated by the country but was felt most of all by parents like Judith. “It makes me happy to say that I was able to give my son all his needed vaccines,” Judith shares, her joy punctuated with a newfound sense of relief. “My son completed his protection. I don’t fear these diseases anymore.”

Judith’s story of hope is one of the million reasons that inspires UNICEF’s relentless effort to help eradicate the deadly disease. In celebration of World Polio Day, UNICEF stands committed to boost routine immunization efforts by the government, especially amidst the evolving challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To sustain these gains, UNICEF, as it commemorates its 75th anniversary, continues to provide necessary technical and operational support to strengthen the health system and deliver vaccines to the most vulnerable of children. In the years to come, UNICEF remains a reliable partner in bringing more people and communities together to see a shared promise: for every child, a polio-free future.