By Mark James Johnson, IFRC
With one of the largest mass yellow fever vaccination campaigns ever attempted in Africa underway in Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo this week, Red Cross volunteers are donning the familiar red vests and fanning out across both countries to aid in the response.
Since the first confirmed reports of yellow fever in Angola in January 2016, mass vaccination campaigns have covered most of the affected parts of the country. The Angola Red Cross has been on the frontline of the response since the beginning – assisting with administering vaccinations, and reaching into communities to talk with people about the importance of vaccinations, and to share messages on how families can keep themselves protected from the mosquito-borne disease. Recently, the next stage of the pre-emptive vaccination phase, targeting three million people in 18 districts, began. Four additional districts on the border with Namibia will be targeted over coming weeks.
The Angolan Ministry of Health has asked the Red Cross, with its community-based volunteers, to help reach communities in the most remote areas.
While some people are wary of vaccine programmes, volunteers are working hard to ensure they are informed of its importance. “When we started the first phase of the campaign, there was some resistance,” says Felipa Antônia Quimanga, a nurse at the Ana Paula hospital in Viana, a suburb of the capital Luanda. “There were people already infected with yellow fever, coming to get vaccinated, and some would die. So people started to say that if they got vaccinated, they would get the disease.”
“In situations like this, it is often a familiar human touch that plays the biggest role in alleviating people’s fears,” says Erin Hall, health delegate for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Southern Africa. “In Angola, we are seeing the vital role of Red Cross volunteers and their ability to speak to members of their communities and reassure them that they can protect themselves and the people around them. It is a crucial element to any successful vaccination campaign.”
We often talk about the important work that volunteers do in their communities because they are present before, during and after disasters and emergencies. This, however, is only half the story. Volunteers are not just vital to response efforts during outbreaks like yellow fever. They are the core of the response because they bring a perspective deeply rooted in the communities in which they live and work. They understand the underlying health risks and vulnerabilities and are vital in mobilizing local capacities to respond to their communities’ needs. They are simply indispensable.