Polio survivor, Richard Elaka, 60, has made it his mission for the last 20 years to educate his community in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on the benefits of vaccinating. At 7 years old, Mr. Elaka suddenly lost the use of his legs. His family initially believed this was the result of a curse that his uncle put on him. It was not until later that Richard understood that the poliomyelitis virus had infected him due to him not having received the polio vaccine. Unable to walk without the use of crutches from the age of 7, Mr. Elaka has not taken his survival for granted. He spends his free time doing community outreach. He roams the streets attempting to teach his neighbors about the dangers of non-vaccination.
The Under-Vaccination Problem in the DRC
Only 35% of children in the DRC, between the ages of 12-23 months, have complete vaccination records by the time they turn 1 year old. The COVID-19 pandemic has perpetuated this issue; the DRC has steadily watched vaccination numbers decline since the start of the pandemic. The primary reasons for the declining numbers are:
- Vaccinators lacking the personal protective equipment required for dispensing injections.
- Parental concerns of exposure to COVID-19 when traveling to vaccination facilities.
- Insufficient funds to buy the vaccines.
- Conflict and insecurity.
Number three on this list is one of the biggest barriers the DRC has faced.
The DRC’s government is working to remedy the issue of under vaccination. The dangers of non-vaccination, particularly within the population of a developing country like the DRC, are a very real and present danger. In June 2020, the DRC doubled the immunization funding budget it had in 2019. In fact, about $16.4 million went towards the purchase of vaccines.
Along with the financing that UNICEF contributed, the money that the DRC government provided has made it possible for the Emergency Plan for Revitalization of Routine Immunizations’ work in the DRC to continue. Some formally know the Emergency Plan for Revitalization of Routine Immunizations as The Mashako Plan, named for the late DRC Minister of Health Professor, Leonard Mashako Mamba. Its creation in 2018 was a direct response to the issue of incomplete immunizations. Initiated with the hope of targeting several under-vaccinated areas of the DRC, the Mashako plan implemented five key components in creating a sustainable immunization practice:
- Dispensing Immunizations – The 2018 goal was to increase the number of completed vaccination sessions by 20%.
- Stockout Reduction – Reduce incidents of local health care centers experiencing stockout by 80%.
- Observation and Assessment – Closely monitoring data results of vital factors.
- Supervision – Routine inspections of immunization storehouse and vaccine dispensing facilities.
- Funding and Strategy – Monthly meetings to discuss finance and implementation.
The Good News
From its inception to 2019, the Mashako Plan has contributed to a 50% increase in completed vaccination sessions. The impact COVID-19 is having on the DRC and its mission to vaccinate has been challenging. In 2020, the DRC contended not only with COVID but with Ebola and measles outbreaks as well. Despite these arduous circumstances, volunteer vaccinators, DRC public health officials and community members, like Richard Elaka, remain undeterred in the commitment to protecting the citizens of the DRC from the dangers of non-vaccination.
– Rachel Proctor