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Syrians Take Polio Vaccine Campaign Into Their Own Hands

As part of our effort to highlight civilian stories, below is a conversation between Syria Deeply and Abu Mehdi, an activist from the city of Hama.

Written by Maryam Saleh Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Among other things, Abu Mehdi is currently responsible for the media coverage of theEnd Polio in Syria campaign, an international effort to vaccinate children in rebel-held areas Syria against polio, in Hama province.

The End Polio in Syria campaign is a product of the Polio Control Task Force; it came to fruition after months of meetings between the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and a number of medical organizations that fund hospitals inside Syria. The Turkish Ministry of Health was also involved, and it distributed the polio vaccines among groups including SAMS, SEMA, the Union of Medical Relief Organizations and the Assistance Coordination Unit.

Plan of Action

The various medical organizations set forth a plan for each of the provinces where the vaccine was to be administered [Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, Hama, Idlib and Latakia]. The original goal was to vaccinate 1.5 million Syrian children under the age of five, including 34,000 children in Hama province. We are currently in phase three of the six-part campaign, and the number of children who will be vaccinated by its end is subject to change due to the ongoing exodus of Syrians throughout the country.

[Rebel-held] Hama was divided into three areas to be visited during the six days of each phase of the campaign: northwestern suburbs, eastern suburbs and an area called Oqeirbat. During this phase, we are vaccinating more children than we had initially anticipated; the increased intensity of battles throughout Hama has brought families fleeing the violence to the liberated areas in which we are working.

Our teams go from door to door in each village and administer oral vaccines to children under the age of five. We mark the left pinky finger of each vaccinated child using permanent marker to keep track of our work. We also usually mark each house that we visit with a different symbol, depending on whether the children inside were vaccinated or not. Finally, we record the name of the head of each household along with the number of children who were vaccinated and the number of those who were not.

Memorable Moments

We once came across a 30-year-old woman in Qal’at al-Hawayes village in eastern Hama. When we told her that we were a part of the vaccination team and we were looking for children under the age of five, she did not say anything, but her eyes welled with tears. Eventually, she said, “All I have left is my daughter. What if the vaccine is not safe, and I end up losing my fourth child?”

The woman’s mother then approached us and told us that three of her grandchildren were killed by the regime’s shelling of the village. A single barrel bomb killed the woman’s three sons in one blow, leaving her with no one but her young daughter. The entire team was moved to tears by the story. The woman continued to resist the vaccine, but we were eventually able to convince her that it was a necessary precaution due to the recent polio outbreak in Syria. Tears continued to roll down the woman’s face even as we left her house.

Challenges and Risks

Before the campaign began, a team of volunteers visited various villages to educate the people on the importance of the polio vaccine. They distributed informational brochures and worked with imams and community leaders to raise awareness.

Despite being approached by complete strangers who request to conduct a somewhat invasive act on their children, most people have been very receptive to the campaign. I think this is largely due to the fact that the campaign volunteers were assigned to work in the areas they come from. That’s not to say we have not faced any resistance, but most parents end up granting their permission after learning more about the necessity of the polio vaccine.

Aside from pushback from some parents, we have also encountered safety issues. On a number of occasions, regime forces shelled the areas we were working in. Once, in the town of Qal’at al-Madiq in northwestern Hama, regime troops opened fire directly onto a team of volunteers; thankfully, no one was hurt.

In recent months, the suburbs of Hama have become a major battlefield, and in some areas, such as Kafarzeita, the shelling never stops. However, we do not allow these conditions to deter us, and have only been obstructed by situations where direct clashes break out in an area we are meant to be working in. When that happens, we regroup and move to a different area until things calm down.

The current phase of the End Polio in Syria campaign ends on March 2, and it will be followed by another three phases. We will not stop, and we will show the world that we are capable of managing our own affairs despite the tyrannical Assad regime that continues to portray us as terrorists who are destroying the country.

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