The COVID-19 infodemic threatens polio vaccination progress in Benin
06 January 2022
During the 2nd half of 2020 and the 1st quarter of 2021, 22 new cases of poliomyelitis (polio), a deadly viral disease, were detected in Benin. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccination campaigns were carried out to stem polio transmission.
"Don't come to my house. I don’t want my child to get a vaccine that could kill him!", a mother shouted vehemently in a local Beninese language as she saw vaccination workers coming at her home.
This kind of incident often occurred during the 2021 vaccination campaigns deployed in Benin to protect the children against polio in the communities where the virus was detected.
The polio virus enters the body through ingestion of soiled water or food contaminated with stool, or through contact with an infected person. It attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within a few hours, especially in children. However, the disease can be prevented by vaccination.
"No […], we are carrying out a polio vaccination campaign to protect the children and spare them from suffering disabilities later," the vaccination worker calmly replied to the mother who categorically refused to have her child vaccinated.
In Benin, the workers tasked with vaccinating children aged 0 to 59 months against polio must show patience and pedagogical skills. They spend a lot of time convincing families to have their children vaccinated.
"Would you rather your child ends up disabled because you refused to vaccinate him?", a fellow vaccination worker added, courteously.
The agents’ patience and ability to remain calm eventually paid off: after a 30-minutes discussion with the mother, they managed to demonstrate to her that the information she had was false and that the COVID-19 vaccine had nothing to do with the polio vaccine. Reassured, she finally agreed to have her child vaccinated.
"Since I started as a vaccination worker, I have never seen so much resistance and reluctance from the parents. They confuse the polio vaccine with the COVID-19 vaccine. Even those who used to agree to have their children vaccinated are now refusing to do so because they think it is the COVID-19 vaccine that is being given to them," said Ester*, exhausted - but not discouraged - by a campaign he has been carrying out under the scorching sun.
Reassuring the parents and offering free care in case of adverse post-vaccination effects
"Every vaccinated child who has a headache, fever, or any other symptom related to the polio vaccine is treated free of charge in our public health centers," said Dr. Josiane Azé, Head of the Departmental Public Health Service of the Departmental Health Directorate of the Coast.
The purpose of our visit is, first of all, to encourage the vaccination workers who are working in the rain, in the sun, and who are facing various other challenges in the field", said Mr. Salvator Niyonzima, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Benin, during a field visit with UNICEF Representative Ms. Djanabou Mahondé, WHO’s Acting Representative Dr. Djingarey Harouna Mamoudou and Beninese Ministry of Health officials.
While visiting households in the Fifadji and Zogbo neighborhoods, in vaccination centers, as well as in the Saint Michel market, in Cotonou, with teams of vaccination workers, the delegation saw firsthand that people had, indeed, tenacious doubts and reluctance about the polio vaccine.
"It is important to see every child receive the vaccine. I want to ask each parent who agrees to have their child vaccinated to be an awareness agent in the community so that no one is left behind," urged Ms. Mahondé, from UNICEF.
UN’s key role in the fight against polio in Benin
In all, three polio vaccination campaigns were conducted in 2021. The first took place from 7 to 9 May, the second from 28 to 30 May, and the third, which was meant to achieve a level of herd immunity sufficient to interrupt viral transmission, took place from 22 to 24 September .
To help carry out these polio eradication campaigns, WHO provides technical support (training, monitoring vaccine preparation and administration rates, batch quality surveys, etc.) and UNICEF finances the logistics, manages vaccine stocks, and carries out communication and awareness activities (developing and disseminating messages on radio and TV stations, mobilizing community workers in door-to-door operations before and during the campaigns, etc.)
Because communication is critical in this area, the UN in Benin collaborates with Radio Benin Alafia, a public service radio station that covers the entire country and broadcasts exclusively in the country's 18 national languages. Radio Benin Alafia broadcasts daily messages to raise families’ awareness of the importance of polio vaccination and the danger of misinformation, therefore helping them overcome their reluctance to vaccinating the children.
The world has never been closer to achieving the goal of polio eradication, but thousands of children remain at risk as long as the virus circulates. In Benin, as in other countries, perseverance and vigilance are therefore critical. Resident Coordinator Salvator Niyonzima said:
"The fight against COVID-19 should not prevent us from pursuing other immunization activities to protect the children of Benin. It is the future of Benin and its new generation that are at stake."
*The person’s real name has been changed for the purpose of protecting their privacy.
The original version of this story was produced by François Agossou (WHO), Reine David-Gnahoui (UNICEF), and Yézaël Adoukonou (Office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Benin) and posted to the UN in Benin website. This edited version was produced and translated from French to English by the UN Development Coordination Office (DCO). For more information on UN's work in Benin, please visit https://benin.un.org/fr.