In renewed efforts not to leave any child needlessly exposed to vaccine-preventable diseases, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the authorities in Bayelsa are seeing a marked improvement in immunization coverage in the State. This follows the adoption of innovative approaches to reach all children — even those living along its hazardous creeks and remote jungles.
Bayelsa State has long been characterized by insecurity driven by socio-economic hardship, with healthcare workers and vaccinators exposed to piracy, banditry, kidnapping, militancy, organized crime and local rivalries as they navigate the waterways to reach their target population. Their activities were often curtailed by the high cost of fuel, required to power their boats.
In 2018, Tarimobowei Egberipou, the Project Manager (PM), State Emergency Routine Immunization Coordination Centre (SERICC) made an important step by securing increased funding from the State Ministry of Health to provide health workers with the resources they needed to better access hard-to-reach populations.
He also introduced some novel strategies, supported by WHO, to reach all children such as boat-to-boat immunization at sea, community engagement through traditional leadership hierarchies, and overcoming vaccine hesitancy by showing informative films and conducting household sensitization activities.
“These innovative strategies have made what was previously a herculean task become a routine activity,” said Nathaniel Onodu-Ipoku, Permanent Secretary in the State Ministry of Health, adding that the number of disease outbreaks in the state has started to fall.
Data from Bayelsa State Primary Health Care Management Board (BSPHCMB), more than 42,192 under 1 child have been vaccinated on schedule, against tuberculosis, hepatitis B, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, pneumonia, measles, Yellow fever and Haemophilus influenza type B bacteria in 2019. He also commended WHO and health workers for their diligence, leadership and coordination roles.
Commenting on WHO’s coordination role in Bayelsa, the newly appointed Commissioner for Health, Dr Pabara Newton Igwele, said: “WHO has been instrumental to the numerous and laudable achievements in strengthening the health care delivery system.”
Undoubtedly, achievements due to the creative approaches are reflected in the increased number of Local Government Areas (LGAs) meeting routine immunization performance targets, known as Routine Immunization Lot Quality Assurance Sampling (RI LQAS). Six out of eight LGAs passed the RI LQAS in the third quarter of 2019; not one LGA passed in the fourth quarter of 2017.
WHO State Coordinator in Bayelsa, Edmund Richard Egbe, underscored the effectiveness of community engagement in increasing demand for immunization services. He also described the initiative as one of the most creative strategies that galvanize caregivers to willingly access the interventions even when in the middle of the river or ocean. “The successful implementation of the framework has resulted in the high-level acceptance of immunization services in the region with an optimal reach and coverage of otherwise ‘missed’ children,” he reiterated.
Support for the polio eradication and routine immunization programmes in Nigeria is funded through WHO by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the UK’s Department for International Development, the European Union, the Government of Germany through KfW Bank, Global Affairs Canada, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Rotary International, and the World Bank.