Togo: 1,500 volunteers take on measles

Published: 15 January 2002 0:00 CET

Tope Akinwande in Lomé, Togo

Red Cross volunteers in Togo are fighting a battle almost as difficult as the struggle against measles itself: convincing traditionally-minded people of the need to vaccinate their children against measles, or take them to the hospital when infected. More than 50 people have died in the latest outbreak, so the Red Cross is stepping up its effort to bring the disease under control. Some 1500 volunteers have been recruited from local communities and dispatched to nearly 90 districts to explain the benefits of anti-measles vaccination.

A large number of Togolese still believe that when a child is infected with Agbahe or Ayingbato, as measles is known here, the child is being visited by Sakpate, the West African god of disease, for purification and blessing. The patient, who is actually considered to be fortunate, is kept in an isolated room containing a shrine where sacrifices are offered to the deity.

"Why should I vaccinate my child?" asks a sceptical woman at Lomé's central market when approached by Leontine Akouavi, a Red Cross volunteer. "Aren't you a Togolese? You don't want Sakpate to visit me?" she says, brushing aside further attempts at explanation.

Leontine describes the challenging volunteer experience in the battle against measles: "Our work has been more difficult in rural areas. We have had to beg parents to release their dying children for treatment. I was able to convince many people in my village because they saw me as one of them and trusted me not do anything to harm them. I can understand their reluctance because this is an age-old tradition. People are beginning to see the need for immunization. It may take some time but we will get here."

If people are beginning to register their children for vaccination or take them to hospital when infected with measles, it is partly as a result of the strategy of the Togolese Red Cross. Says Vincent Maku, the coordinator of the measles project at the Togolese Red Cross: "We knew from the beginning that changing our people's belief on measles was not going to be easy. That was why we decided to recruit volunteers from within communities. They not only speak the local languages, but most are themselves former adepts or relatives of worshippers of the deity. Villagers trust them because they consider them as their sons and daughters. Though they are always reluctant in the beginning, they usually change their mind by the end of the day. Our volunteers explain to them that the Red Cross does not condemn their religious belief, but wants to help them live a healthier life."

Rose Yaovi, president of the fish sellers' association at the Lomé's Port de Peche and an devotee of Sakpate, explains how she lost her twin daughters to measles: "I still worship Sakpate. But I'm sure that if I had heard of the anti-measles vaccination earlier on, my twins would still be alive. I did not bother to vaccinate them and when they fell ill, I happily took them to the Sakpate shrine for the necessary sacrifices. A week later, they were dead. Most of the sellers here worship Sakpate, but you can see how they have received the Red Cross enthusiastically. Some of them have lost a child, a cousin, a nephew or a niece."

Turning to her fellow fish sellers, she concluded in her own language: "These people are not telling us to abandon our religion or tradition, but sometimes we have to move with the times."

For Albert Dagou, head teacher of EPP Gbouvie, an elementary school on the outskirts of Lomé, the Red Cross arrived just in time. "We are tired of burying our pupils on a weekly basis," he says. "I am happy you have come just as parents arrive to collect their children. I am sure they will listen to you more than us."

The Togolese Red Cross is carrying out the anti-measles campaign in collaboration with the Togolese government, the American Red Cross, the International Federation, UNICEF, WHO, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the UN Foundation.