Over the next week, Malawi will immunize more than 2.5 million kids against measles. The American Red Cross’s Niki Clark is there, and writes about why Red Cross volunteers are so motivated to make sure every child is reached.
In the beginning of 2010, a horrific measles outbreak struck Malawi, starting in Blantyre and Zomba in the south and spreading to Mzimba and Nkhata Bay to the north. By mid-July, every district in Malawi had reported cases, and by the time the disease was contained, at least 134,000 people had been infected with measles. Of those, 300 people, mostly children, had died.
A little more than three years later and I find myself in Blantyre, as the Measles & Rubella Initiative and other partners gear up to launch a national vaccination campaign across all 28 districts in Malawi. Many people I speak to vividly remember the outbreak of 2010.
Ethel Chisale, 26, was one of those who suffered, along with six other members in her community, two of them pregnant woman. Ethel got very ill, and describes the outbreak as traumatizing. Fortunately nobody in her community died, but that frightening outbreak now gives her personal insight as a Red Cross volunteer.As a volunteer, she goes from home to home telling families about the upcoming measles campaign, using her own story to emphasize the importance of vaccines. “I am motivated to prevent others from experiencing the same thing I did,” Ethel says. “As much as I suffered, I am convinced it is entirely preventable, so I am actively involved.”
In Mchingi district, Ethel tells Marita Positain, 42—whose two children, Letira, 5, and Proffesor, 1 are eligible for the vaccine —about her story and convinces her to have them vaccinated. “I have suffered,” Chisale says. “I volunteer because I don’t want others to have to go through the same thing. I am a living testimony to the importance of vaccines.”
Ethel Chisale is just one of more than 100 Malawi Red Cross Society volunteers that are supporting social mobilization efforts in six districts through house to house canvassing. Each volunteer is tasked with reaching 100 households to share information about the campaign and the importance of being vaccinated while answering questions and providing details about where the vaccination posts are located.
Red Cross volunteer Oscar Kalwayo, 30, who also trains other volunteers on house to house efforts, says they use whatever means necessary to spread the word. “Megaphones, flyers in local churches, anything to connect with the community. We want leaders to use their positions to let people know about the vaccinations.”
For the Malawi campaign, deworming tablets, Vitamin A and polio vaccines will also be distributed, quadrupling the life saving benefits. Other M&RI partners including the Lions Club and UNICEF help social mobilization efforts through advertisements in local radio and posters around communities.
Ruthie Msatero, 26, has been volunteering with the Malawi Red Cross Society since 2009 and remembers the 2010 outbreak well. She says she keeps volunteering because she just wants to help people. “I choose to be a Red Cross volunteer with my whole heart and am happy to help my fellow Malawians.”
Niki Clark is a communicator for the American Red Cross. In addition to telling the story of the international work the Red Cross does around the globe, Niki focuses on the Measles & Rubella Initiative, of which the American Red Cross is a founding partner.