Afghanistan | News | Female polio workers reaching every last child

Female polio workers reaching every last child

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16 January 2017 – I meet Zainab* in front of a busy park full of playing children. 

Her and a team of female polio vaccinators kneel in the middle of a noisy group of children and start vaccinating the children one by one with confident, quick moves. 

One of the team members hands out orange and green balloons after marking the children’s fingers in blue marker pen to show they have received the vaccination.  

The children show off their balloons and blue fingers enthusiastically. 

Zainab has recently been promoted and now supervises 5 female vaccination teams. She enjoys her work. 

“I like to be a supervisor and have my own teams. I used to be a vaccinator in a health centre, and have been working in the polio eradication programme since I graduated.” 

We move to a close by area meet her next team. This team has vaccinated 49 children today, and it is only 9.30 the morning. It is now the second day of the last vaccination campaign in 2017. On the first day of the campaign, the team vaccinated a 138 children in total. 

Convincing people to vaccinate their children is not always easy. “People believe that vaccinations reduce fertility and causes disrespectful behavior in children. We tell them this is not true”, Zainab explains.

This time all children are vaccinated without problems and a Zainab’s team member Asma* marks the wall with chalk. 

More female workers, more children reached with vaccines

There are almost 70 000 front line polio workers in Afghanistan, of whom less than 10% are female. This is possibly the largest female workforce in Afghanistan. 

Some regions have more female workers than others. In urban areas, around third of the workers are female, whereas in rural areas the proportion is much lower. 

The role of females is crucial however. 

Habibur Rahman, who works as a district polio officer in Kandahar, tells: “Before we had female polio workers, we were missing children who were newborn and sleeping. When the men were working in town, there was often no-one who could take the children out of the house to be vaccinated when the teams knocked on the gates. Females can enter the houses, but males cannot.”   

The vaccination coverage in the region is now getting better, as female vaccinators have more access to the children. 

Kandahar is a challenging area for polio: the first case in 2017 in the world was found here, and recent environmental samples have found poliovirus circulating in the Region. In 2017, one district in the province, Shahwalikot, had 5 polio cases in 2017, more than any district in the world. 

It is crucial to reach all the children with vaccinations. 

Rahman tells, that although there are female polio workers working in the area, it can be difficult to recruit them. “It is difficult to find female polio workers, as many think women should not work.”

Zainab also tells me, that her joining the polio workforce was not something women would often do in her Region. “It is not very usual for women to work in Kandahar, but my family supports and encourages me.” 

Women like Zainab are in the frontline of polio eradication, ensuring vaccines reach every child every time. 

* Name changed

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Key health-related statistics

Population (m) 29.7
Health expenditure (% of GDP) 9.5
Adult (15+) literacy rate (%) 34.8
Life expectancy at birth F/M (2010) 63.2-63.6

Sources: Central Statistics office, Afghanistan National health Accounts, Afghanistan Living Conditions Survey, Afghanistan mortality survey. 

Framework for health information systems and core indicators for monitoring health situation and health system performance, 2018

Afghanistan country health profile

Regional Health Observatory

WHO Afghanistan Programme Overview 

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