Celebrating Kibera’s vaccine volunteers: preventing disease, one child at a time

By: Dr Asha Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General of the Kenya Red Cross.

This blog is adapted from a speech given at the Gavi pledging conference in Berlin, on 27th January 2015. Watch it in full here.

“I have been involved in immunisation all through my career, but my biggest highlight came in 2002 when Kenya set out to immunise 14 million children against measles. We were supported by the American Red Cross and the Measles & Rubella Partnership. The Kenya Red Cross were requested to provide support, and we had to reach districts with huge gaps in coverage. Substantial efforts were required.

Kibera, one of the largest informal settlements in Africa, was one such area. It’s a few kilometres from Nairobi’s city centre, yet was a difficult to access area for several reasons. I was born in Kibera, and I understood very well the need for vaccines. Actually my mother told me that I almost died of measles, so I was grateful for the opportunity to support my community and demonstrate that it can be done.

We had to battle the misguided perceptions, the myths and cultural beliefs that community members had about measles and its vaccination. Kibera is home to one million people or more, who come from different parts of the country with very different cultures. There were also security issues that we had to deal with, and we had to mobilise all sectors of the community, including respected community leaders. Logistics were another big issue – there are no proper roads or pathways in Kibera. Houses are crowded and arranged haphazardly, so you couldn’t tell if you’d missed a household.

A view of the Kibera area. Credit: Creative Commons on Flickr.

A view of the Kibera area. Credit: Creative Commons on Flickr.

The beauty of having the volunteers who came from the various villages in Kibera is that they knew all the corners, knew the people living in them, and even many of the children by name. It was therefore easy for them to see which house or child had not been reached. In the end, we had such high immunisation coverage that all these challenges did not seem to matter, This also built a foundation, a vehicle that could then be used to deliver other health interventions.

The role of volunteers in reaching every household in the community, not only during campaigns but on a continuous basis, is critically important. Volunteers can support routine immunisation by following up every household. They  are themselves members of the community and so are easily accepted. Volunteers also have the ability to tread the last mile of vaccine delivery, which is so vital if every child is to be reached. Therefore, community ownership is critical in achieving this goal and assuring sustainability.

One of the recipients of Kenya’s measles vaccine campaign back in 2002. Credit: Gavi/Thomas Kelly.

One of the recipients of Kenya’s measles vaccine campaign back in 2002. Credit: Gavi/Thomas Kelly.

To quote UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, who said: “the world possesses the resources and knowledge to ensure that even the poorest countries and others held back by disease, geographic isolation or civil strife can be empowered to achieve the Millennium Development Goals”

Last but not least, I want to pay special tribute to all the volunteers and civil society workers who put their lives at risk every day in saving the lives of millions of children. Hats off to all the partners who support this cause, and in particular those who have stayed the course all these years.

Just like we say that no woman should die giving life, equally no child should die from preventable diseases once born. Immunization is about investing in the future of the world.

One child’s death is one death too many, we can and must do more in order to reach every child with lifesaving vaccines.”

Prelude Prelude Version 2.3.2