Po­lio vac­cine cham­pion re­fused to quit de­spite un­speak­able trauma

The National - News - - NEWS - Ra­hane Lawal

Few peo­ple have paid a higher price for their com­mit­ment to vac­ci­na­tions than Ra­hane Lawal.

As a Unicef vol­un­teer, she trav­els to com­mu­ni­ties in Nige­ria, per­suad­ing par­ents to ac­cept in­oc­u­la­tions for their chil­dren and coun­ter­ing myths that once led to health work­ers rou­tinely be­ing turned away.

Last year, a gang of ban­dits broke into Ms Lawal’s home, de­mand­ing a large sum of money they wrongly be­lieved she had been paid for her work.

She had a gun held to her head in front of her young daugh­ter, and her fa­ther-in­law, who had en­cour­aged her to join the Unicef pro­gramme, was shot dead.

Ms Lawal was held hostage for 11 days, un­til her fam­ily and com­mu­nity mem­bers raised enough money to sat­isfy her cap­tors and se­cure her re­lease.

In an in­ter­view with The Na­tional, she said she found the ex­pe­ri­ence too up­set­ting to talk about, with her ex­pe­ri­ence in­stead re­layed by a trans­la­tor who was fa­mil­iar with her story.

But de­spite the trauma, she con­tin­ued with her work, mov­ing to a new area in north­ern Nige­ria and con­tin­u­ing to con­vince peo­ple of the ben­e­fits of vac­cines.

“It has be­come my pas­sion,” said Ms Lawal, 51, who has been vol­un­teer­ing for five years.

“I had seen kids who had been crip­pled from po­lio.

“We had is­sues of par­ents not ac­cept­ing the po­lio vac­cine. There were a lot of myths – peo­ple used to be­lieve that once they gave chil­dren the vac­cine, the child would be­come in­fer­tile.

“That peo­ple were fol­low­ing them, of­fer­ing the vac­cine free when treat­ment for con­di­tions like malaria was not free, made peo­ple sus­pi­cious.

“But I have 10 chil­dren and I used my chil­dren as an ex­am­ple, be­cause all my 10 kids had their vac­ci­na­tions.

“So I showed them, ‘look how healthy my kids are’. That has been able to per­suade them.”

Unicef and other char­i­ties use lo­cal com­mu­nity mem­bers to spread a pro-vac­cine mes­sage be­cause they are more ef­fec­tive than out­siders. Peo­ple like Ms Lawal also en­list the help of trusted re­li­gious lead­ers to im­prove up­take rates.

She has helped achieve “record suc­cesses” in Nige­ria, which has gone three years with­out a case of po­lio and is close to be­ing de­clared free of the disease.

“Be­ing recog­nised with the award has given me even more strength to go back and do more,” she said.

“But we still have so many dis­eases, so we want the world to re­ally sup­port Nige­ria to fight all these other dis­eases, like malaria and ty­phoid, which are still out there.

“We also need help in the fight for se­cu­rity, be­cause we have not been able to go to cer­tain com­mu­ni­ties be­cause of the se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion. So the in­se­cu­rity needs to be ad­dressed.”

Daniel San­der­son

Ra­hane Lawal, win­ner of the Un­sung Hero award

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