Stories from the Field: leading UNICEF’s polio outbreak response in the Bangsamoro region

Challenges and successes of working in the field to immunize every child

Dr. Rosalia Bataclan
A UNICEF staff member gives a dose of oral polio vaccine to a child
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Jeoffrey Maitem
09 February 2020

It’s one thing to read about the dire situation of children in the papers, but to get to witness it in the field, in evacuation centers, in health centers, in hard-to-reach barangays is something else.

My name is Sally Bataclan and I have been leading UNICEF’s polio response in the Bangsamoro.

My career as a Medical Doctor began in a hospital and a private clinic. More than 15 years ago, I became a medical volunteer in Sri Lanka, working with displaced communities. I went back to the Philippines and became a Doctor to the Barrio in Ifugao. After the end of my contract, the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain war happened in Mindanao, so I joined an NGO as a medical doctor. I worked with various NGOs and eventually joined UNICEF’s health & nutrition team in our Mindanao Field Office.

Being from Manila, it took some time to adjust to the culture and the way things work in Mindanao. It can be frustrating at times, but I was fortunate to work with locals who have the same goal of helping the communities, particularly children.

Polio comes back

When I heard about the first case of polio in Lanao del Sur, I felt sad. What made it even more saddening was that it happened just after the measles outbreak and the identification of diphtheria cases—all of them vaccine-preventable diseases. We got right to work, and we have not stopped since then.

UNICEF’s role is to support the government to ensure that at least 95% of all children are vaccinated against polio. UNICEF’s primary tasks are to help the government make sure the right messages reach the right people, vaccines are given to children on time, and health workers are prepared for the polio campaign so that every child is reached.

A UNICEF staff member talks to a mother carrying her child
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Jeoffrey Maitem
Dr. Sally Bataclan, UNICEF Philippines Health & Nutrition Specialist, talks to a mother carrying her child in the town of Lumbayanague, Lanao del Sur on 15 October 2019 during a synchronized polio mass vaccination campaign.

Challenges and successes

We encounter so many challenges in the field. From reaching the isolated barangays because of the terrain and insecurity, lack of mobilization and transportation support for the health workers, the weather, and making sure that the vaccines do not spoil.

Despite the challenges, we have many successes. There are local leaders who are very supportive of the campaign, our partner organisations who complemented the response of the government, World Health Organization and UNICEF. Even the religious leaders helped spread the word about polio by including it in their sermons. We at UNICEF also witnessed the power of youth groups who volunteered without hesitation.

Proud moments

Most of all, the proudest moments I cherish are those where UNICEF staff stepped in, put their own work on hold and gave their all. They readily let go of their own specialisations and tried their best to learn how a good polio campaign should be done. Colleagues got out of their comfort zones, going to remote barangays and island municipalities, devoting their selves fully to the polio campaign.

A group of UNICEF staff members
UNICEF Philippines/2019/Monib Hashim
Staff from the UNICEF Philippines Mindanao Field Office prepare for the launch of the synchronized polio immunization campaign in Mindanao on 14 October 2019.

I recall our Water, Sanitation & Hygiene Specialist Rasul who was assigned to manage all the information, prepare reports and still go to the field to conduct assessments himself. Upon learning his new role, he did his homework and came prepared. He worked hard to consolidate and understand all the data which helped us, and the partners improve the conduct of the campaign. By the end of the first campaign, he is the one getting worked up and excited about how we can still improve. The challenge seems insurmountable, but we are always laughing, exchanging photos of our exciting rides to the island barangays, and inspired by the health workers who do the hard work every single day.

As a UNICEF staff member, I’m inspired by even the small changes and positive effects among the children and communities that I’ve seen.

The recovery of a severely malnourished child, the health workers who are now better able to give service because of the training they received, government workers who go beyond the call of duty—all of these make me reflect that I am in a unique position to help children in the Bangsamoro. For that I am truly grateful.

Dr. Rosalia Bataclan is a Health & Nutrition Specialist at the UNICEF Mindanao Field Office