Cornelia Walther from UNICEF in Democratic Republic of Congo tells the story of Lora, a mother she met at a recent polio vaccination campaign in the eastern province of Katanga.
"I do not want my daughter to suffer the way I did, and still do!” Lora says. Now a mother, Lora was paralysed as a young child when she contracted polio.
“I was born healthy: I could walk when I was a child, but then I got sick and my legs went numb, and then I couldn’t use them anymore."
Lora and her daughter, surrounded by other inhabitants of the village, wait until for the little girl’s turn get vaccinated against polio . © UNICEF/2012/DR Congo/Cornelia Walther
Many mothers showed up at the village health centre for the polio vaccination day. But no one understands the devastating effects of the disease better than Lora. Children under five years of age are especially vulnerable to this highly infectious viral disease that attacks the nervous system. But timely immunisation can prevent infection.
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The village of Kasambondo is in Katanga, one of the four provinces in DR Congo currently affected by the wild polio virus, along with Bas Congo, Bandundu, and Kasai Occidental.
The DR Congo was polio-free between 2000 and 2006. But a weak health system and lack of infrastructure undermined routine immunisation coverage, and polio re-emerged. There were 93 recorded cases of the disease last year.
In response, UNICEF and partners launched an ambitious polio campaign to repair the country’s broken health system. Although DR Congo’s national routine immunisation coverage of children between 12 and 23 months has significantly improved in recent years, progress has mostly been limited to middle and high-income households.
But while close to all children in these groups are fully vaccinated by the time they reach their second birthday, hardly one in four children from poor families is immunised.
One of the reasons for this is unwillingness on the part of parents and community leaders. So UNICEF has aimed specifically to reach these individuals through this latest campaign.
In some areas, religious leaders ban mothers from vaccinating their children, saying it goes against their faith. Ado, one of the mothers anxiously waiting to get her children vaccinated at the Kasambondo Health Centre, is a case in point.
“I am sorry for what happened to my daughter”, says Ado, looking at her three year-old daughter Lea, who recently became the latest polio victim here.
“Our pastor had told us that vaccination is against God and therefore we refused. Today I know that this was wrong.” It is unfortunately too late for little Ado, but her siblings, at least, will get vaccinated.
In some areas, one out of five families reject the polio vaccine due to religious beliefs or traditions. Lack of education also has a negative impact. Meanwhile, community health workers are doing their best to deliver quality medical care in remote rural areas where most of DR Congo’s recent polio cases have been reported, like here in Kasambondo.
For her part, Lora is relieved that she can at least take action and do something to protect her nine-month-old baby girl Lubumba so she doesn’t suffer the same fate as her mother.
“This vaccination will help my baby to grow up strong and healthy,” Lora says, stroking her little girl’s head.
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