In Madagascar, as in too many other countries at the moment, there is a lot of false information and rumor associated with vaccines. Among the ones we hear most often are:
- “If the country is polio free, why are you doing another vaccination campaign?”
- “We know that the vaccines are really a way for the government to prevent us from having more children.”
- “Our children will get sick if we have them vaccinated.”
I recently took part in a three-day polio vaccination campaign in the northern district of Antsiranana during which 150 community health workers immunized nearly 24,000 children under five. Every time I take part in one of these campaigns, it feels like some of the noblest work a person can do: guarding children’s health and wellbeing.
During the pre-campaign I met a brave woman called Nadia Michèle. She was working in a small health centre, drawing plans for the fokontany (an area made up of several villages or neighborhoods) to make sure that the community workers would be able to reach all the children. As she did that, she held her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter in her arms because she was sick.
Nadia works in a small health centre where she does everything she can to support the community. She gives basic medications, provides family planning and breastfeeding information, gives quick diagnostic tests for malaria and sometimes helps women to give birth. She also works as a community mobiliser, informing parents of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines and countering any false rumors. She is essential to the fokontany.
The health centre where Nadia works is partly funded by UNICEF. UNICEF and partners also work with families, community leaders, educators and the media to ensure that parents have all the information they need to make informed decisions about the health of their children.
But Nadia’s day wasn’t over yet, after plans were in place, she went house-to-house asking if there were children under five who could be vaccinated, marking the doors of those to be included in the campaign. She did this late into the night.
My second encounter with Nadia was on the first day of the campaign.
She had awakened early to take care of her five children before starting to take care of other people’s children. She had a big smile on her face when we showed up.
Holding a box containing vaccines and a marker, we started walking through the fokontany, knocking at each door trying to reach every under-five child. At the same time, she used the opportunity to advise parents on maintaining the health of their children while explaining the importance of vaccinations.
Every vaccinated child had their left little finger marked in ink so that it was clear who had already been vaccinated. Many of the children were intrigued, thinking they were getting their nails done! They also received candy which of course created even more smiles.
“My house is not big, but it will welcome all the children it can,” says Nadia.
Nadia has been a community health worker since 2010. During campaigns, she earns less than one dollar a day. When she is carrying out her routine duties, she often goes unpaid all together. So why does she carry on?
“I like to help the children with everything I have but I’m like these children, I don’t have more than them,” she said. “So, the only way I can help them is by doing this.”
Nadia also has plans for other projects. Starting in October she will open a nursery for children who currently spend their days playing in the street without any supervision.
For the moment her house can welcome around 20 children. Her hope is that one day she will have enough money for a bigger house, so she can welcome more.
“Je fais le vœux, Dieu donne la grâce,’’ she says. I make the vows, God gives the grace.
Adelina Berinde is a researcher working for the health section of UNICEF Madagascar.