Women who go door to door to ensure every child is vaccinated are helping bring vital health facilities closer to where people live.
Kamwetsa Mothers Care Group in Blantyre has lobbied for the construction of a children’s clinic using the Local Development Fund (LDF).
Children being vaccinated in the new facility personify the group’s work to protect them from infectious diseases.
“We used to have a children’s clinic once a month. If the due date for the next vaccine didn’t coincide with the clinic, you had to walk over 10 kilometres [km] to Chileka Seventh Day Adventist Hospital with a baby strapped on your back,” says Alinafe Mayite, 26.
She brought her two-week-old third-born for its second vaccine, giving it a shot at a healthy life.
“We used to queue in a nearby prayer house for community health workers to weigh and vaccinate babies. Now we are assured of privacy,” says Mayite.
She sometimes left home as early as 6 am to get to Chileka before the under-five clinic opened at 8 am.
The women group trained by Malawi Health Equity Network (Mhen) to expand access to immunisation rallied villages to make bricks for their clinic.
“We made two kilns of bricks and contributed land, sand and water for the clinic so children can get immunised and other basic health services where we live,” says village head Kamwetsa.
A dream come true
Amon Square, a community health worker in the rural locality west of Blantyre City, travels about 20km to vaccinate farthest-to-reach children.
“For us, this is a dream come true. We want this clinic to grow and benefit all children under 15 years, who cannot walk for two hours to get treatment when they fall sick,” says Kamwetsa.
He salutes the women confronting challenges in national efforts to end deadly infections prevented by vaccines.
Their group was born in October 2019 when group village head Chikumbu convened some 50 women from all six villages in his territory to get trained by Mhen.
“We envision a better Malawi where every child is immunised not to spread preventable diseases,” says Ela Muheka.
The women meet men, cultural enthusiasts and religious groups who resist calls to present their children for the jab.
However, the fast-spreading coronavirus discovered in China last December has become a handy weapon for tackling pockets of resistance. Coronavirus vaccines are still in the making, but the pandemic shows how a disease can affect the whole world.
“If we don’t take precautions against infectious infections, the whole community is at risk. Since April, we haven’t seen flights to Chileka International Airport and now we are wearing face masks to prevent the coronavirus disease discovered in China 10 months ago,” she narrates.
Square says the women have become “a bridge between their communities and healthcare providers”.
“These foot soldiers are our eyes and ears. They have made our job easier, especially to send life-saving messages and keep track of children that skip immunisation,” says the health surveillance assistant.
Mhen is working with women care groups in 13 districts with support from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi) in partnership with the Ministry of Health and civil society organisations (CSOs)
“These groups are not only promoting immunisation. The same group carries key messages on nutrition, family planning and disease prevention,” says Mhen executive director George Jobe.
It is against this background that Stanley Chikuwi, the chairperson of the National Gavi CSO Platform, urges the ministry to expand the community-led initiative to all 28 districts “so that we can have a healthy Malawi”.
Dr Fatsani Gunda, a medical officer at Blantyre District Office, says the five-year project is helping far-flung populations get immunisation, including cervical cancer vaccines for girls aged nine, without suffering financial hardship.
Health for all
Chief of Health Services Dan Namarika says Gavi will support the construction of 950 health post in line with universal health coverage and the government’s promise to ensure Malawians walk no more than five kilometres to get medical assistance.
He reckons Malawi has a responsibility to safeguard the world from diseases prevented by vaccines.
Namarika states: “Sustainable Development Goals require us to leave no one behind. The coronavirus has shown us that when you mask up, you protect everyone. Similarly, when a baby is vaccinated, everyone is safe. Gavi gives us funding because if we are not immunised, the whole world is at a threat.