Everyday heroes of polio eradication

Women are ensuring that the children in Papua New Guinea are protected and vaccinated

Amidst a poliovirus outbreak in Papua New Guinea, legions of women health workers and leaders are playing a critical role in ensuring children are fully protected from lifelong paralysis.  In the current emergency outbreak response, women have emerged as a strong, reliable, and a decisive group that continue to administer key services in the outbreak response implementation. From medical doctors to surveillance officers to community mobilizers to health workers, women are active and present on all fronts.

World Immunization Week—celebrated in the last week of April— aims to encourage the use of vaccines as one of the safest methods to protect against diseases, including poliovirus. This year’s theme – Protected Together: Vaccines Work! – highlights “heroes” who are ensuring that people of all ages, all across the world are protected through vaccines. Women on the frontlines of the outbreak response in Papua New Guinea are a fitting example who continue to inspire the public health community across the world.

Here is a roundup of some of the extraordinary vaccine “heroes”:

Dr Fiona Kupe, Paediatric Specialist Medical Officer, Gerehu General Hopsital, National Captial District, is among the many women around the world who ensure essential vaccines are provided across their communities. ©WHO/PNG
Dr Fiona Kupe, Paediatric Specialist Medical Officer, Gerehu General Hopsital, National Captial District, is among the many women around the world who ensure essential vaccines are provided across their communities. ©WHO/PNG

Dr Fiona Kupe

Dr Fiona Kupe is a Paediatric Medical Officer at the Gerehu General Hospital in the National Capital District, Papua New Guinea. She is, in effect, a one (wo)man army as she dons multiple hats in the polio eradication efforts in her home country by searching for children with acute-flaccid paralysis (AFP) at Port Moresby General Hospital and Gerehu General Hospital. She also leads the mapping of communities – or microplanning –  for all Supplementary Immunization Activities (SIAs) across three districts.
Along with that, she finds time to train vaccinators and community volunteers, all the while carrying out her clinical duties as a child specialist.

“As a paediatric doctor and a mother…every day, I keep (my) passion alive to overcome challenges and basically to do everything I can to check on children’s vaccination status whenever they come to see me for check-up. As a mother, I know that vaccines save lives. I want my child to survive with good health and I would definitely want the same for all the mothers and children I see.”

Melanie Serei

Seen most days with her trusty pet dog by her side, Melanie works in one of the most challenging areas for immunization activities as a health worker in a remote village of Terapo in Kerema, Gulf province. Geographical inaccessibility aside, Melanie constantly juggles issues of insecurity, violence and community vaccine hesitancy. But, she tries every single day to overcome barriers in her mission to reach every last child with the life-saving polio vaccination.

Building community trust and demand for vaccination were considered key tenets in the risk communication for the polio outbreak response. Melanie successfully carried out door-to-door checks on all the children in the village. Thanks to her diligence, she was quickly able to notice polio symptoms in a child that allowed adequate and rapid actions.

Dr Winnie Sadua

Working as a paediatrician in Angau Memorial General Hospital in Morobe province, Dr Winnie treats one very special patient: six-year-old Gafo—the first reported case of polio in PNG in over 18 years, triggering a national outbreak emergency.

Dr Winne Sadua with her star patient, Gafo, at Angau Memorial General Hospital in Morobe province. ©WHO/PNG
Dr Winne Sadua with her star patient, Gafo, at Angau Memorial General Hospital in Morobe province. ©WHO/PNG

Since his diagnosis, Gafo has gone on to become somewhat of a celebrity, a symbol of hope, and a staunch advocate for polio eradication. Through timely treatment and physiotherapy by Dr Winnie, Gafo can now walk with his signature gait. He is now healthy and excited to start school next year.

With all the patients that come to her, Dr Winnie makes sure to remind all the parents to take heed from Gafo’s case and get their children vaccinated.

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