Jemberu Raya Soressa, Senior Program Officer, PATH Ethiopia
This year, Ethiopians from all walks of life gathered in the town of Fitche in the Oromia region to celebrate African Vaccination Week. While there were many distinguished and official guests, I was most moved by a volunteer, Fekadu Legesse, who journeyed from his rural village to demonstrate his horsemanship as part of the ceremony.
Fekadu told me that “Volunteering for better health outcomes is my passion!” His enthusiasm was evident as he went on to say, “Vaccines will prevent a serious diseases like polio, measles, diarrhoea, and pneumonia. I saw many deaths and many disabilities in the past due to these diseases. Even from my own family members. I have witnessed also that there is a significant changes in the last few years which I believe is due to vaccines. That is why I’m volunteering.”
I learned about Fekadu’s two children; “I have two little daughters, the older is four years old and the younger is one and half. Both are fully vaccinated and both are healthy too.”
The horse riding was the highlight on a day full of Ethiopian traditions and thoughtful discussions about the importance of vaccines. Ministry officials were joined by partners from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the World Health Organization, UNICEF, PATH, the Core Group, CHAI, JSI, Save the Children, and the Consortium of Christian Relief & Development Associations. The celebration included local Selale Band traditional music, blessings from elders, poetry, and dialogues by children – all to reinforce why immunisation is so valuable. The dignitaries enjoyed the traditional coffee ceremony, in which the higher officials were also invited to cut the traditional (Defo Dabo) bread.
During the presentations and panels, Mr. Girma Ashanafi, advisor to the state minister of health, pledged that “The Ministry of Health will continue working hard to ensure that children are vaccinated and hence protected from any illnesses that may also lead them to lifetime disabilities or even death.”
Most importantly, the day featured a vaccination session at the one of the health centres in Fitche that was designed to reach unvaccinated children identified from each woreda (or district) of the region.
The diversity of this day reflected a new approach to vaccination advocacy pioneered in the neighbouring region of Afar over the past few years. There, just north of Oromia, engaging a range of community leaders to share vaccination information in schools, mosques, market places and women’s groups has helped raise demand for immunisation.
Fekadu was happy to be at the centre of it all in Fitche. He told me, “A week before, I was told by my kebele administrator that the 24th of April will be a launching day for African vaccination Week at our capital, and he told me that he is looking for a volunteer horse rider to accompany social mobilisation activities. I promised him I will be one of the volunteers. That is why you found me here.“
Horse riding may not be a conventional form of vaccine advocacy, but it’s thanks to the support of community leaders like Fekadu that the messages from African Vaccination Week will live on all year round. Ultimately, his passion will be part of the effort to empower parents across Ethiopia to claim the life-saving protection of vaccines for their children.