How mom said yes to vaccines

The first time they came knocking about the vaccine, Adina said no.

Roxana Grămadă
How mom said yes to vaccines
15 October 2020

Over 20,000 people in Romania have been diagnosed with measles since 2016. To date, 64 people have died – 58 of them children. The outbreak is the result of a drop-in immunization coverage over the past two decades, with many parents fearful of vaccination, due to the spread of misinformation.  For example, the proportion of children who have received a second dose of the measles vaccine – which is needed to adequately protect a child form the deadly disease - dropped from 97 per cent in 2000 to 76 per cent in 2016. It was only after UNICEF started re-engaging in the national measles programme that this drop was stopped, and the coverage is currently up 5 percent from 2016 for the second dose. UNICEF focused on improving immunization awareness of the general public via TV, radio and social media, as well as on redesigning the national electronic vaccination registry, on conducting catchup immunization campaigns in areas with extremely low coverage, and on improving behavior and communication skills of local health workers on immunization.

Besides these actions, UNICEF supported teams of health and social workers in 45 communities in Bacău county, in eastern Romania. Their interventions focus on providing a minimum package of community-based health services, including access to vaccination, to save and improve children’s lives.

The first time they came knocking about the vaccine, Adina said no.

“I was afraid after hearing people talk about vaccines at the Post Office, the grocery store. As a parent, you panic.” 

Adina is a mother of four and only her first born, Petrina, had been vaccinated for measles; Delia, the younger daughter, and the boys, Alberto and Mario, had not. Her husband, Ionut, is employed with a permanent working contract at a chicken farm. They live together in a house made of clay and straw, in Buhuși, in the country of Bacău. All their children go to school and do well. Mom and dad are proud.

As are Mrs. Gabi Stan, the health mediator, and Mrs. Magda Grigoriu, the social worker, who visit them regularly. “When children go to school, [we know] our work has not been in vain, change always comes afterwards.”

Mrs. Stan and her colleagues have helped Adina get identity papers for the children, register with the family doctor and prepare family aid applications before Ionut got work. When they came knocking, they had already known each other for years.

Mario knows how to take care of animals. He feeds Ruby, the mare, and the pig. And discovered baby pigeons in the attic.

Getting to yes, one no at a time

“We needed to work at it a bit,” says Mrs. Stan. Together with the “Community-based Child Services” UNICEF pilot program team, she went door to door and talked to each family.

“I always say: you have no business with what your neighbor says, you need to go straight to the competent source, and get the correct information.” Here and there, Gabi will drop an Italian word. She worked in Rome for nine years but has been a health mediator with the city hall for 11 years now. All children greet her on the street.

Adina has no schooling but runs the house like a shop manager. To the left, there are neatly folded blankets and pillows with matching white dotted cases, like the earrings Petrina gifted her. On the shelf, three matching cups are lined nicely, next to a bottle of shampoo. “It only looks pretty in the morning. When kids leave to school, it’s a battlefield. It takes me an hour or two to get it all done”. She wakes up at 4:30 in the morning, with her husband, gets the kids ready for school, and then does the cooking and the washing. “It’s my job. We work so hard, and still, they get colds, immunity drops…” All her children were hospitalized for hepatitis.

Gabi and her colleagues spoke to each family supported by the UNICEF pilot programme in Buhusi, to make sure they understand the risks of not getting the vaccine.

This was part of a larger door-to-door awareness and catchup campaign launched in 2018 by Romania’s Ministry of Health in partnership with UNICEF and the World Health Organization to vaccinate children in the most vulnerable communities - people living in hard to reach areas, those affected by poverty, and Roma communities. These vulnerable groups often have children with the lowest rates of immunization.

The hardest part was getting the first parents to accept. When the others saw that the kids were fine, they started saying yes. “They put their trust in us. We told them it was very good. There will always be a yes and a no, as with all medicine. Even healthy people can have a bit of a fever [afterwards], it’s normal.”

“She spoke to me from the heart. And maybe that’s why she convinced me. And then this fear crept in, God, what if I don’t do it and my children suffer, and then I have them on my conscience? I asked when they were doing it. -The pickup van comes on this day, at this hour.”

After the vaccine, life gets to go on

It happened on a rainy August day. Adina got the children nicely dressed and ready and set on their way. “The road was muddy, I carried Mario on my back.” Up on the hill, the van from the city hall was waiting to take them to the community center.

That day, Gabi and her colleagues had 45 children vaccinated against measles. A doctor from Bacău came to supervise and answered all the mothers’ questions.

After the vaccine, Adina had paracetamol and other meds ready, but none had fever. “It pricked like a flea,” said Mario, and that was that.

When they called Adina for another vaccine, she said yes right away.

She reads one letter at a time, but Adina knows lots of important words: “capacity exam” – the one pupils pass when graduating middle school, “plans” and “dreams”. Petrina is in a trade school. Alberto wants to be an auto mechanic. Delia is the best in her class and Mario wants to bring his mom “lots and lots of food” when he grows up. She’s proud of her husband, he’s “their pillar of strength. When he hurts, so do I.”

At night, when dad comes home, a pillow fight or a theatre play may happen. “That’s our family, we’re content, we don’t need no fortune, just good health, that’s what matters.”

Pillow fights are best when kids are healthy. That’s why Gabi and her colleagues knock on doors. With the vaccines done, the pillow fight is a real thrill.