YAOUNDE, Centre–Last year, Cameroon celebrated news that it had been removed from a WHO list of countries at risk of exporting polio.
No new cases have been reported in the country since the last outbreak in 2014. That could change at any time, though. Some families won’t vaccinate their children.
A Cameroon poet, himself a polio victim, has joined the campaign to silence the propaganda against polio vaccines.
A crippling disease
One evening in February, Douglas Achingale arrived early at a book launch in the Cameroon capital Yaoundé. As he is introduced to give an academic critique of the work, two men help him to the podium.
Achingale, who is one of Cameroon’s leader poets, drags himself along with two wooden crutches. He lost both legs to polio, when he was still a little boy.
“My parents told me I caught polio before I was two,” he says. “I was already walking but was not vaccinated against the disease.
“I started by limping slightly and my mum thought I had stepped on a sharp object. As the days went by, the other leg also got affected, and I could not walk.”
Polio is incurable and vaccination is the only means of prevention.
Polio experts say if Achingale had been inoculated, he could have been spared. Polio is incurable and vaccination is the only means of prevention.
The disease, medically known as poliomyelitis, is caused by the poliovirus. It attacks the brain and muscles, crippling – and sometimes killing – its victims.
An initiative led by WHO has been trying to eradicate the disease. It hopes to “deliver a polio-free world” by 2018.
Two years ago, WHO said Cameroon was one of the few places still exporting poliovirus to other countries. It came after the country reported outbreaks in 2013 and 2014, which spread to Equatorial Guinea.
Authorities responded with mass vaccination of children under five. Last year, the country gained polio-free status. No new case has been reported since 2014.
But the gains are already under threat. Resistance against vaccination has again put thousands of children at risk.
Achingale says that should not happen.
“It is unacceptable for people to resist polio vaccination for their children; absolutely outrageous. Living with polio is no easy feat. I miss things like playing football and dancing which I relish.”
Deniers claim the vaccine is bad and produces side effects such as sterility. Religious leaders often spread the rumors by telling their followers that vaccines are impure and evil.
Sussan Mbeng, who was vaccinated as a child says the claims are false. At 35, she is healthy and has three children. She regularly vaccinates her own kids.
“I and my husband received polio vaccines, but here we are,” says Mbeng. “Nothing is wrong with us because our parents gave us polio vaccines. This talk about sterility is baseless.”
Achinagale is adding his voice to the effort to silence anti-vaccination propaganda. His poetry often addresses social and political themes of injustice and corruption. Increasingly, he is tackling disabilities.
“There is a poem in my first collection ‘Oppression’, which has disability as its main theme. The poem is titled ‘The Wicked Staircase’.
“It is true I have published only collections of poetry thus far. But I don’t write only poetry. I am currently working on a novel whose protagonist is a person living with disability.”
Achingale says he is also working on a movie that will cast only people with disabilities.
Authorities hope efforts like this will raise more awareness and help the country stay polio-free.