Stronger role of women at all levels crucial to end polio for good

Melissa Corkum, Polio Outbreak Response Senior Manager for UNICEF, has dedicated a large part of her professional life to ending polio.

Melissa Corkum with women polio workers of the Immunization Communication Network in Afghanistan. ©Melissa Corkum

In 2003, Melissa Corkum received a call that would change her life. The World Health Organization wanted to interview her for a position in their polio eradication team. Like most people who are hearing about polio eradication for the first time, the story compelled her, and she packed her bags to embark on a new adventure. Seventeen years later, she remains a dedicated champion of polio eradication.

A self-proclaimed ‘virus chaser’, Melissa has worked in all three polio endemic countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. She found inspiration in her first field job in Nigeria, where she realized the scale of the polio eradication programme and that she was a part of something tremendous in public health history.

“I was amazed and inspired when I first saw the efforts of the front-line workers delivering vaccines to the doorstep. It may seem simple to deliver a couple drops into a child’s mouth, but when you see it in motion for the first time, it is truly remarkable,” Melissa said.

©Melissa Corkum

To this day, Melissa remains in awe of the work required to make ‘reaching every child’ possible. From mobilizing financial resources, to getting vaccines where they need to be while keeping them cool. From the microplanning to ensure all children and their houses are on a map, to the mobilization of champions in support of polio and immunization. Along the way, the stewards of these processes play an essential role to deliver the polio vaccine.

Melissa has worn many hats during her time in polio eradication, but her current role may be the most challenging yet. As the Polio Outbreak Response Senior Manager with UNICEF, she must answer the formidable challenge of containing outbreaks, using her expertise to inform global policy, strategy and operations.

To do this Melissa spent 80% of her time in the field prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, working with partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), Ministries of Health and local health workers.

Her work is a mix of challenge and excitement – the challenges of containing outbreaks, including those affected by the COVID-19 emergency – and excitement in developing new tools and methods to overcome the evolving challenges that present barriers to eradicating polio.

“There is never a dull day no matter what hat you may be wearing within this programme. If we are going to put an end to polio for good, we are going to have to fight the fight on a number of fronts – endemics and now the emerging issue of outbreaks in a post-COVID world,” said Melissa.

“The key is a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

At times, Melissa felt the weight of the enormous challenges to eradicate polio, especially during her time in Afghanistan, where protracted conflict has complicated efforts to deliver basic services to the most vulnerable. Melissa often reflects on her time as Polio Team Lead there and the emotional rollercoaster she faced trying to stay ahead of the virus, while watching the tragedy of war unfold in the country.

“But when I felt down, I would pick myself up and get ready to face the next challenge. I found hope and inspiration in the resilience of the Afghan people, especially the women who worked in the polio programme, risking their lives and demonstrating a courage that stood out amidst all the difficulties.”

“It is so inspiring to be part of something tangible and something that is completely possible if we commit ourselves to doing everything possible to find every last child”. ©Melissa Corkum

Melissa sees gender as one of the keys to polio eradication. She firmly believes that the only way to tighten the gaps in the system is by involving and empowering women equally in all roles across the programme, and that the only way to reach every child is to ensure their caregivers are equally informed and engaged in the decision making process.

“Unless we involve more women in the programme in certain corners of the world, we will continue to reach the same children and miss the same children, making polio eradication ever more difficult,” Melissa said.

“Change won’t happen if we don’t change the way we think about involving women. We need to listen to their views and open the doors for more women to join and participate equally from the community level and all the way to the leadership, decision-making level.”

Melissa was born in a small town in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her views on the critical involvement of women and gender equality in the polio programme very much align with her government’s Feminist Aid Policy. The Government of Canada has been a long-time champion of polio eradication and recently generously pledged C$ 190 million to assist the GPEI achieve its objectives of polio eradication.

Greater gender equity is one of the legacies that the polio programme is working to leave behind after eradication. Reflecting on her career, Melissa explains what keeps her working to defeat polio after all these years.

“It is so inspiring to be part of something tangible and something that is completely possible if we commit ourselves to doing everything possible to find every last child”.

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