Social mobilization and community engagement are two phrases I hear quite frequently these days, in the office and the media, with both activities widely credited as helping turn the tide in stopping the spread of Ebola. UNICEF-supported social mobilization teams have for months been at the forefront of efforts to halt the transmission of Ebola in Liberia. Now, with the country having reached zero cases, their role has changed to that of raising awareness in the communities about the importance of accessing routine health services.
The rules of the game have certainly changed since Liberia reached zero cases of Ebola on May 9. The day before the announcement, the country launched a week-long integrated immunization campaign in response to a measles outbreak – a positive first sign of the restoration of routine services.
The campaign aimed to reach over 600,000 children who had previously been unable to access immunization services during the Ebola outbreak. Preliminary reports indicate that over 90% of children under 5 years of age received vaccines during the campaign and that community engagement was key to the success of the immunization drive.
I am not surprised by these results. When I travelled to Gbarnga in Bong County a few weeks ago, I joined a social mobilization team and witnessed, first hand, the impact they had on encouraging behaviour change and in helping to educate communities.
Talking to communities about the importance of vaccinating children and the prevention of childhood diseases that too frequently lead to the deaths of thousands of Liberian children every year is just one way I saw how community mobilizers are re-engaging with communities.
“Liberians know about vaccinations for diseases like measles and polio. Before they didn’t need convincing, but now it is different. Speaking to both children and their parents yields the best results”, explains Dutch Hamilton, UNICEF’s Community Mobilisation Coordinator in Gbarnga, Bong County (who we met in a previous blog).
It is shocking to think that in Liberia, one in four deaths of children under five are due to measles and pneumonia, both vaccine preventable diseases. During the height of the Ebola crisis, immunization rates dropped to a startlingly low 16%. For this reason, the high coverage achieved in the latest campaign is both encouraging and welcoming.
Dutch tells me how difficult it has been working in the current environment and highlights that fear and misinformation have been holding parents back from accessing essential health services.
“A large part of the job is now about rebuilding confidence between the communities and the health workers, as well as with the health system in general,” says Dutch.
UNICEF recruited more than 4,000 social mobilization personnel who were deployed across Liberia to raise awareness during the integrated immunization campaign. Other equally important elements to the campaign were message development and the use of multimedia to encourage behaviour change.
“Reinforcing these messages is an ongoing task and communities are receptive. Ensuring families understand the importance of protecting their children from preventable diseases through immunization remains a challenge,” says Dutch.
Admittedly, it worries me that after Liberia’s success in stopping the transmission of Ebola within its borders, the world’s spotlight will shift away from the country’s growing health needs. In reality, the international community’s support is crucial to the restoration of services and the strengthening of Liberia’s already crippled health system.
Dutch and his team, and the 4,400 other social mobilization workers recruited by UNICEF across the country are now gearing up for the next vaccination campaign for polio and Vitamin A, which will take place between 26-29 June. The rainy season has already begun and the teams’ efforts will be needed more than ever to meet UNICEF’s goal to reach every child. I am hopeful that the success of the last campaign can be repeated again and only time will tell if these positive results can be sustained in the future.
Alvina Lim is a Communication Officer working at UNICEF Liberia.