The Seventh Annual African Vaccination Week (AVW) kicked off last Saturday in N’Djamena, Chad at a launch event hosted by First Lady, Hinda Déby. She stressed, “the best protection against preventable diseases is immunization,” and “everyone should be protected regardless of age, sex or geography.”
Promoting universal immunization needs to be a collaborative, inclusive process, which is what the continent and health partners aim to achieve during AVW. In this vein, the Africa United Campaign, which strives to achieve universal health access in Africa, helps move the needle on universal immunization by catalyzing action on health through sport, famous footballers, celebrities, international health bodies, private companies, NGOs and multi-sector actors.
It’s crucial to ensure that all members of a household and community are educated about vaccination. We found that while women are often the caregivers and decision makers in a household when it comes to childcare, they often still rely on the consent of their husbands and other male figures to for health care center visits and permit their children to be vaccinated. Our experiences in Chad reflected that; as we observed the work of government vaccination teams, we saw firsthand reactions to immunization. The time we spent with the team also reaffirmed that football can play a major role in vaccine education and promotion.
Many times the mother’s responsibilities keep them in the home, or shopping for the family in the market. In N’Djamena, Chad, that’s exactly where government healthcare workers go to ensure children who are not brought to health centers still receive their polio vaccination.
On a Sunday morning in N’Djamena, the central market is just coming alive with vendors opening their stalls to sell everything from food to clothes, books, shoes and household items. This is where we encountered a polio vaccination team made up of Benjamin, Adam, Fatime, Angeline and Menodji. Their goal: approach every mother and father with a small baby or child and ensure that they’ve been vaccinated against polio.
They’re met with mixed reactions. One woman carrying her baby on her back was offended that she was approached, saying that she had her own doctor and could assure them that here baby was well taken care of. Impressively, the vaccination team does not back down or take an initial “no” as an answer. They push a bit more and tell her why the polio vaccination is so important, and eventually she allows them to vaccinate her baby.
I asked what they think are the most effective means of educating the population about the importance of vaccination. They said the primary ways people receive information is through posters in the marketplace, radio PSAs, and local healthcare workers. Unfortunately, many people are unable to read, and persistent energy problems don’t always allow for access to radio, especially outside of N’Djamena in more rural areas.
As we continued through the market, the vaccination team approached a husband with his two young sons and his pregnant wife. The man quickly became irritated and instructed his wife to stay behind him. Afterwards, I asked the team what the disagreement was about. The man refused the vaccinations for his children. When his wife attempted to speak up and intervene, he wouldn’t allow it.
We met up with Pierre, the control agent who ensures the teams are meeting their daily targets and carries extra vaccinations in case they run out through the course of the day. I asked if it was common for the men to refuse the vaccinations, and he said, “Sadly, yes. Often times, it’s simply a lack of information and understanding about why they’re necessary.”
I then asked how men could be sensitized about vaccination if not through the posters or radio PSAs, and eventually we came around to the topic of sports, specifically football. Football is a unifying element in African culture, and it is no different in Chad. The marketplace is steps away from one of N’Djamena’s largest stadiums. Throughout the market, you could spot several Lionel Messi jerseys and children dribbling balls while their parents shopped or managed the market stalls.
I asked if he thought that if men received vaccination messages during football games, that it would start to bring about a change in attitude around immunization, and his answer was a resounding “yes.” He believes that incorporating it into matches is an excellent way to reduce stigma and increase understanding about routine immunization. Football is very deeply embedded into the culture and every day life; Pierre said that if men were sensitized in this way, they would understand that their children could become “future footballers.”