“One day, after attending a celebration in my parent’s village, we came back home with my feverish son, who kept falling over whenever he tried to stand”, recalls the 43 year-old father.
As the child got weaker and couldn’t stand anymore, his parents rushed him to the hospital. After medical examination, the diagnosis came one month later, in those days of October: “The doctors told me it was polio. It was a very hard and complicated moment”, says Kolimullah. “I felt a very useless man.”
Jasair Arafat was one of the two children reported as contracting the vaccine-derived polio virus infection in 2015 in Maungdaw. The emergence of such cases is the result of low immunization coverage, which in Rakhine state has been below 80% for the last few years. In fact, in some of the State’s townships only 27% of children received the three recommended doses of oral polio vaccine.
Maintaining routine immunization services, especially in hard-to-reach areas, represents a challenge for the Myanmar health system. As a result, children are less protected from viruses. In Maungdaw, where the majority of the population is Muslim, there are also language and culture barriers, increasing the distance between the community and the basic health staff and volunteers. The inter-communal violence that erupted in Rakhine State in 2012 has also further complicated community outreach, and as a result all children from all communities are at a greater risk.
“A response is now underway to stop local transmission and prevent further spread says Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF Representative to Myanmar. “However, the most effective way to stop the circulation of this virus is to increase the immunity of all children, including children living in violence-affected areas, through routine immunization coverage”.
UNICEF and WHO are supporting the Ministry of Health to conduct polio outbreak response vaccination campaigns in all 330 townships of Myanmar, targeting around 4.6 million children under 5 years. The first three rounds of this campaign - which took place on December and January - targeted children in 22 high risk townships in Rakhine, Chin, Magway, Bago and Ayeyarwady. In addition, one national round of polio immunization will be conducted in the entire country starting on 20-22 February.
“UNICEF urges the government to expand routine immunization against all antigens to protect children from preventable and debilitating diseases”, says Bertrand Bainvel. One immediate step to help reach this goal is to prioritise vaccine management and cold chain systems in the government’s health budget, and to increase community outreach in order to create more demand for the vaccination. “The concerted efforts of the government and all health partners will result in improved routine immunization coverage nationwide and low risks of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks in future.”
Kolimullah also has an important role to play, as he became a community volunteer during the polio outbreak response in Maungdaw. “The community does not receive information on polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases, especially about how they are transmitted or prevented. “I want to change this so that other families in my community can learn about the risks of polio and protect their children”, he affirms.