Tope Akinwande in Abidjan
At the end of the first year of the Measles Initiative - an inter-agency immunization drive throughout sub-Saharan Africa inspired early last year by the American Red Cross - national societies in West Africa report good coverage, thanks mainly to the strategic deployment of thousands of local volunteers.
In Burkina Faso, Mali, Ghana, Togo and Benin, mass vaccination programmes were held in December and January, with mothers' clubs and many hundreds of volunteers taking part.
An estimated 50 African children an hour die for want of medicine or - better still - a simple vaccination to defeat measles, a disease largely forgotten in the industrialized world. The Measles Initiative is a long-term commitment to vaccinate 200 million children and prevent 1.2 million deaths over five years. It is led by the American Red Cross, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, UN agencies and involves the International Federation, national Red Cross Red Crescent societies and governments in up to 36 measles-endemic countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Burkina Faso, hundreds of Red Cross volunteers took the campaign to more than 20 districts, visiting households and market places and encouraging mothers to vaccinate their children, and eventually registering 66 per cent of more than 2.5 million children immunized. Volunteers also took part in a travelling awareness caravan that went round the country in the run-up to actual vaccination.
"We've gained from this campaign in so many ways," says Bana Ouandaogo, president of the Burkinabe Red Cross. "We have been able to prevent so many deaths and our volunteers are now sought for so many activities."
The Mali Red Cross limited its effort to four administrative districts but nearly 400,000 children were immunized - exceeding the target figure. Local radio stations donated airtime to the society, enabling it to reach people living in remote areas who are likely to subscribe to traditional beliefs on measles.
In Ghana, Red Cross volunteers harnessed the latest digital technology in the shape of Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) in their registration drive. Volunteers were taught to use them in a workshop organized by the American Red Cross. "Most of our volunteers had never seen a PDA before, but they soon got comfortable with the devices and made good use of them in the field," said Emmanuel Yaw-Dankwa, information officer with the Ghana Red Cross. With PDAs "our assessment was very accurate and it attracted people," Red Cross volunteer Mary Akegeh Mensah recalled enthusiastically. "They were so astonished to see us with such a gadget." The Ghana Red Cross registered more than 400,000 children for immunization.
The Togolese Red Cross worked in a third of the country's administrative regions, but there were special problems to overcome. Some Togolese people believe that when a child is infected with measles he or she is being visited by the West African god of disease for purification and blessing. Says Vincent Maku, measles project coordinator at the Togolese Red Cross: "Some of the volunteers we recruited from communities held these beliefs before joining, so it was easier for them to convince people" to immunize.
Togo Red Cross volunteers registered more than half of all the children immunized in the areas covered by the National Society. At the national level, virtually the entire targeted population of nearly 2.5 million children were immunized and the Togolese operation was widely regarded as a resounding success for all the partners.
Though working in just four districts, more than 550 Benin Red Cross volunteers carried out a very visible house-to-house awareness campaign over four days. Says Gabriel Achade, secretary general of the Benin Red Cross: "Our objective was to start on a small scale before going nationwide. Judging from the reception our volunteers got, I think we have not done badly. We had a better than 103 per cent coverage in our areas."
"I discovered how instrumental Red Cross volunteers were to the success of the first phase of the Measles Initiative when I travelled around to the countries involved," says Dr Marcelline Ntakibirora, coordinator of the measles project at the International Federation's West Africa regional delegation here. "Most of the mothers I spoke to who had their children vaccinated said they were persuaded to by Red Cross volunteers."
Initially, the Measles Initiative partnership is focusing its efforts on Africa, but hopes to take the mission worldwide in the future.