It is noon when I arrive at the polio vaccination site in Manono, Tanganyika Province in the south-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). A folk singing group entertains the assembled crowd. In front of the crowd are men, women, young people, older people and children from the area. A young man begins to speak about his experience with polio, a contagious crippling disease that is preventable.
Being impressed with his involvement in the battle against polio, I wanted to learn more about this person. Remy Muyombi is a local extractor of two precious minerals — coltan and cassiterite —found abundantly in Tanganyika.
Remy, married with three children, has been a long-time opponent of vaccinations, believing they are a poison given to transmit disease to children or even kill them. Whenever community volunteers arrived to vaccinate children, Remy and his wife categorically refused.
One January morning, Remy’s youngest son Justin became ill. He was unable to stand and whenever someone helped, he would fall. Remy immediately took him to the dispensary, thinking the young boy had fractured his legs.
In fact, the diagnosis was completely different: Justin had caught poliomyelitis and would never be able to walk again. After long discussions with the dispensary staff, Remy realized he had needlessly been against a vaccination that can save children.
Every parent should take what happened to my child as an example
Remy had refused to have his children vaccinated and now, one of his own was ill, all because of some popular beliefs and rumours.
Little Justin, who is barely three years old, will not be able to walk, run, or play soccer with his friends again. Remy feels he has failed in his role as “protector of his children”.
Since learning that his son will not have the same childhood as others, Remy has become involved with community volunteers in his health district by creating awareness about vaccinations and persuading those who are against them.
Remy goes from house to house to meet with families that refuse to have their children vaccinated, and explains why vaccination is important. He explains that polio is not witchcraft but rather the consequence of not vaccinating children. When needed, he leaves everything else to work solely on community awareness and mobilization, because the future of children is at stake.
More than three million children were vaccinated during the recent vaccination programme in the provinces of Haut-Lomami, Tanganyika, Haut-Katanga and of Lualaba. However, there is still a large number of children among certain populations who continue to remain unprotected because of persistent refusals to vaccinate.
“Every parent should take what happened to my child as an example”, declares Remy. “By refusing the vaccination, the parents risk having the same consequences that I had”.
Serge Wingi is Communications Officer at UNICEF, Democratic Republic of the Congo.