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Old habits die hard as people scramble for polio vaccines

LEADING BY EXAMPLE— Health Minister Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda administers polio vaccine


This article, in which reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Global Health Reporting Initiative: Vaccines and Immunisation in Africa, draws parallels between on-going polio and Covid vaccination campaigns to inform responses to future vaccination campaigns in Malawi. RICHARD CHIROMBO writes.

Like food, dished out to Malawian prisoners only once a day, smiles are hard to come by in penitentiary institutions in the sub-Saharan African country.

Ironically, Diana Joseph, a 28-year-old female inmate at Blantyre Prison was all smiles on a Friday afternoon.

“I am over the moon because my child has just been vaccinated for polio. We have been craving this vaccine,” she says, while tightly and lovingly holding her baby.

In Malawi’s prisons, some children find themselves in prison, where they ‘serve’ sentences along with their mothers— a case of incarceration by association.

Alefa Kampango is another mother who stays with her child in prison, which means just like the mother the child faces the problem of food inadequacy.

“I face the challenge of inadequate supplies of food at this facility. If one child gets sick, the rest become sick as well,” she said.

Having lost her parents, and with her relatives too poor to take care of her child, Kampango has no choice but to stay with her toddler in prison.

But, like Joseph, Kampango could afford a smile on 7 April 2022— not necessarily because she got released from prison or that she had found someone who would take care of her child.

Far from it.

“I got my child vaccinated for polio and I am very happy,” she said.

Some female inmates at the penitentiary facility said they learnt about the polio vaccination exercise through a preacher who came to share scriptures at the institution.

Health rights advocate Maziko Matemba said there are marked differences between the Covid vaccination campaign and the polio vaccination campaign.

“There has been massive sensitisation to the polio vaccination initiative, with the Ministry of Health using print and electronic media and social media, notably Facebook, to disseminate information about polio vaccines.

“There has also been support from all sectors of society, including the church,” he said.

When the Government of Malawi launched the Covid vaccination programme early last year, there was no such thing as churches issuing statements in support of the initiative, a development Matemba attributes to the exclusion of religious leaders before the rolling out of the Covid vaccination campaign.

He said the situation is different during this time of polio vaccine administration as, apart from prison preachers sensitising female prisoners to the importance of vaccination, churches such as the influential Catholic bishops have been openly supporting the Mass Polio Vaccine Campaign.

In their 15 March 2022 statement, the bishops described the recent outbreak of polio as a setback to the efforts and progress made on eradication of polio in the country.

“We urge all Catholics and people of goodwill at different leadership levels, including priests, sisters, brothers, parishes, outstations/sub-stations and small Christian communities to encourage parents and guardians to take their children or wards under the age of five to receive the vaccine once the campaign starts,” they said.

The signatories were Archbishop George Tambala of Lilongwe Archdiocese Archbishop Thomas Msusa of Blantyre Archdiocese, Bishop Montfort Stima of Mangochi Diocese, Bishop Martin Mtumbuka of Karonga Diocese, Bishop John Ryan of Mzuzu Diocese, Bishop Peter Musikuwa of Chikwawa Diocese and Bishop Peter Chifukwa of Dedza Diocese.

According to Society of Medical Doctors President Victor Mithi, myths and misinformation were at the heart of the Covid vaccination campaign, which affected vaccine uptake.

He, however, says this has not been the case with polio vaccine, and speculates that this could be because children have always received the polio vaccine in the past; as such, it has come to be widely accepted in Malawi.

Epidemiologist Adamson Muula believes that, for vaccination campaigns to be effective, people have to be well informed.

This has proved a challenge in the case of Covid vaccination, which is completely not the case with vaccines that are administered while people are young.

Ministry of Health spokesperson Adrian Chikumbe says there are marked differences in people’s responses to the Covid vaccine campaign compared to the polio campaign.

“The response to the polio vaccine has been overwhelming. During the first round of polio vaccination in March, we beat the target by 102 percent at the national level.

“Of course, in some districts, the rates were between 89 percent and 90 percent. In Lilongwe, for example, the polio vaccination rate was at 90 percent while in Mangochi, the polio vaccination rate was at 89 percent,” he said.

Chikumbe attributed the high rate of vaccination to the fact that the polio vaccine is administered orally, which makes it easy for children to take.

In Mulanje, Kasungu, Chikwawa and Nkhotakota districts, where The Daily Times visited between Monday and Thursday when the polio vaccination campaign was launched in March, the difference between polio and Covid vaccination rates was self-explanatory.

In Kasungu, 10 children got vaccinated for Covid on the first day of launching the Covid vaccination campaign for children, while 5,618 children were vaccinated for polio on the first day, figures that kept on rising.

In Nkhata Bay District, about 4,120 children got polio vaccine on the first day, as compared to 18 that got vaccinated for Covid for children on the first day the initiative was launched in the district.

The situation was no different in Chikwawa District, where 21,000 children got vaccinated for polio on the first day of the campaign, as opposed to seven that got vaccinated for Covid on the first day of the children’s Covid vaccination.

In Mulanje District, over 15,000 children got vaccinated for polio on the first day, as opposed to 12 when Covid vaccination programme for children was launched.

Malawi Health Equity Network Chairperson George Jobe says experiences drawn from the polio vaccination campaign can be replicated in the Covid vaccination campaign so that, at least, Malawi can vaccinate the required population to reach herd immunity.

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