Vaccinating Children against Polio in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Vaccinating Children against Polio in the Democratic Republic of Congo

It is 5:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning in the town of Mwene-Ditu, located in the Eastern Kasaï Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The skies are still dark as the crieur, the town crier, makes his rounds, calling out to the community that today is the start of the three-day national vaccination campaign against polio.

As the local residents begin their day, health workers are finalizing preparations for the massive door-to-door effort to immunize children under age five years old from this crippling disease. One such worker is Evariste Kalonji, a community mobilization specialist with the Integrated Health Project.

Evariste Kalonji, a community mobilization specialist with the Integrated Health Project

The US Agency for International Development’s (USAID's) Integrated Health Project, implemented by MSH, the International Rescue Committee, and Overseas Strategic Consulting, Ltd, is working with the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to increase access to, and the availability and quality of, health services in 80 health zones within four provinces of the DRC. On this particular day, this means collaborating with additional partners such as UNICEF and the World Health Organization to ensure that there are appropriate quantities of the poliomyelitis vaccine, that the vaccine is administered properly, and that accurate records are kept by the volunteer workers who are immunizing the children.

At approximately 7:30 a.m., Evariste leaves Mwene-Ditu to head for Kamiji, a neighboring health zone, where he has been overseeing the efforts to ensure community-wide participation in the campaign. The trip to Kamiji, less than 30 miles away, will take him more than an hour and a half, since the roads are unpaved and wind through a vast, rural countryside.

By 11 a.m., Evariste and others have gathered a crowd of more than 400 people in Kamiji. Residents participate in an opening ceremony that includes speeches from local health authorities as well as a skit put on by a local women’s group, which underscores the benefits of the vaccinations and parents’ responsibilities to immunize their children.

With the speeches and skit finished, the first vaccinations take place. The twin grandchildren of the local village chief, just a few months old, are squirming on their mother’s lap outside their home, when the chief is handed two doses of the oral vaccine and, under the guidance of the trained volunteers, squirts the vaccine into the mouth of each child. And with that, the campaign officially begins in.

Life saving vaccines delivered to children in DRC during a three-day national vaccination campaign against polio.  © Matthieu Lutondo

Volunteers fan out in teams of two, a personal cooler slung over one team member’s shoulder, keeping the doses of vaccine cool under the hot sun. The other team member carries the paperwork, to ensure that all the vaccinations are properly registered. At the end of each day, these figures will be collected from each community, to be recorded at the provincial level and finally shared at the national level.

For Evariste, there is still a full day’s work ahead. Later that afternoon he is in Mausa, another community within the same zone, where 400 children are scheduled to be vaccinated that day. He and his colleagues check in with the chief medical officer there. Are parents accepting the vaccine? Is the refrigerator in the health center working properly to ensure the quality and effectiveness of the vaccine? Satisfied with all the answers, it is time to move on again.

Twelve hours after leaving Mwene-Ditu, Evariste is back in Kamiji. At 7:30 p.m., he and another dozen people who have supervised the administration of the vaccines in that health zone have gathered at the central office. A generator powers the electricity in a small room, where the group discusses the challenges and successes of the first day, gets a preliminary count of some figures, and strategizes for the following day.

There’s more work to be done tomorrow. But today’s events illustrate the importance of collaboration in development, where partners such as USAID and MSH work together to contribute to improving the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Elizabeth Walsh is the communications advisor for the DRC-Integrating Health Project at MSH.