Polio Social Mobilisers step-up to aid

Afghanistan’s vulnerable communities in the fight against COVID19

Tamara Abu Sham
polio social mobilisers holding community meetings
UNICEF Afghanistan/2020
10 June 2020

Kandahar, Afghanistan, May, 2020: Decades of war, chronic under development and limited investment in the social sectors has had a devasting impact on Afghan families with loss of livelihoods, growing poverty and the constant struggle for access to basic social services, such as quality health care, access to safe water or proper sanitation.

The Covid 19 pandemic threatens an already dire situation. As part of the agile response to address the evolving crisis, the UNICEF polio programme has mobilised and diverted thousands of its personnel to join efforts to combat the spread of the pandemic. Utilizing its extensive community engagement experience in polio eradication, the programme, in collaboration with national and provincial authorities, is supporting the country’s response through awareness raising and hygiene promotion, including soap distribution, information dissemination, disease surveillance, risk communications and data management.

In Kandahar, a ‘poliovirus epicenter’, where the programme has significant personnel, community social mobilisers stepped up in March to thousands of soap bars and information materials on COVID-19 to some of Afghanistan’s poorest, polio-at-risk and most vulnerable communities. Many of the families served have limited access to sanitation facilities, providing a simple bar of soap and demonstrating its use, was a welcome intervention.

Social mobiliser, Abdul Wahid, explained the importance of his mission, especially amongst the rural conservative communities. “The families were especially happy with the soap distribution. If the social mobilisers were not here, people would have no idea about COVID-19.”

Social mobilisers are trained to work in their local communities, sharing information on how to protect children against diseases like polio. In Afghanistan, UNICEF coordinates a network of 3,750 mobilizers mainly in the southern and eastern regions.

During the distribution, the teams continue to emphasize to families the importance of routine immunization even during the pandemic, reminding, redirecting and referring mothers to visit health facilities for routine immunization and other services. This call remains significant as the house-to-house polio vaccination campaigns have been put on hold due to the pandemic. As such, the vulnerability of children to polio and other vaccine preventable diseases, such as measles and diarrhea, therefore which remains high. Continuous access to routine Immunization services is therefore crucial to prevent any other disease outbreak. The soap bars printed with messages about the importance of routine immunization provided additional reminders to parents.

Abdul Wahis is amongst 3,750 polio social mobilisers holding community meetings while keeping social distance as best practice for COVID-19 prevention.
UNICEF Afghanistan/2020
Abdul Wahis is amongst 3,750 polio social mobilisers holding community meetings while keeping social distance as best practice for COVID-19 prevention.

Ruksar, a colleague of Abdul, explained that she has noticed a change in how vaccine hesitant families react to the polio social mobilisers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘’The number of people who were interested exceeded our expectations. We were able to attract our communities’ attention. Parents who used to refuse polio vaccine in campaigns have participated in COVID-19 discussions and eagerly asked for information’’.

 ‘’During the last polio campaign,” she added, “I had to wait 30 minutes in front of one of the houses. When the door was opened, a man told me, “Go, we do not want to vaccinate our children. Never come here again”. The same man looked up to me in his neighborhood-during our COVID-19 information awareness and soap distribution, but this time looking humble, desperate and hungry for information. This shows that people in the community recognize that we are a source of information when they are concerned about their health, even if they have rejected polio vaccines in the past.’’

Abdul agreed, saying, “the community has more trust in us now as we are trying to minimize the risk against COVID-19 infection through public education.’’

It is hoped that the trust built between the mobilizers and communities during this time will further translate to much stronger relationships in the future. This would be critical reach out to more children in families where polio vaccination was previously been viewed with suspicion.  

Abdul is pleased to serve his community. He says, “I feel proud seeing the results of my work, when more children receive routine immunization on time and pregnant women deliver safely at the hospital.”

“Knowledge matters,” Abdul added. “Information at the time of crises can be lifesaving. The polio programme has a mission to protect every child against diseases including polio, measles, diarrhea and now COVID-19.”