Polio vaccine champion refused to quit despite unspeakable trauma
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.”
Rahane Lawal, winner of the Unsung Hero award