From birth to 15 months, 6 visits to the Immunization Center your child will be protected from 9 vaccine preventable diseases. Repeat after me and memorize these numbers as you did your tables in school.
As some 20 heads nod in agreement, I realized many women and girls sitting in this veranda may never have gone to school. This was an awareness session with community women of Lakki Marwat. The district in Pakistan's northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has a dismally low immunization coverage.
Although it was an all women session, many women had not taken off their burqa (the one which are more popularly known as the shuttlecock burqa which covers them head to toe with just a net near the face to let them see and perhaps breathe a little) for fear that a male glance may fall on them.
Although, I had heard a lot about Lakki Marwat, this was my first visit ever to the place. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a conservative province, but Lakki Marwat is by far the most conservative of all the districts.
I was conducting an awareness session with the community women in Lakki. I wanted to speak to young mothers and even mothers in law and tell them the value of vaccination, how it can save their children from diseases and, best of all, it cost them nothing for that. I was also very curious to find out, despite all the benefits, what prevented them from getting their children vaccinated and what could be done to improve the coverage.
I was amazed at the level of excitement and interest. They were all ears, listening in rapt silence. Giving me utmost respect and importance, they raised their hands and patiently awaited their turn if they had a query.
Pakistan is a large country with high child mortality and low immunization coverage. More than 1,000 children under five die each day. Just over half of Pakistani children are fully vaccinated against all nine diseases included in the EPI, with tremendous variation between provinces (Source: 2012-2013 PDHS). It is an important country in the immunization world, and among the last two still fighting the polio virus.
There are severe provincial disparities and marked variations in immunization coverage in provinces and districts, and by gender. A survey conducted to analyze the causes and barriers of routine immunization in three districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (which included Lakki Marwat) by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) late last year indicated an unfortunate 78 percent illiteracy rate amongst women in Lakki district. Knowledge of mothers that children require immunization six times was only 12 percent.
In a comparison on gender differences of children (12-23 months) who had missed routine immunization, that of girls in that area turned out to be 64 percent as compared to boys.
There are several demand and supply side challenges for this low and fragmented progress. Public awareness of benefits is low and local authorities don’t view immunization as a priority. The gap in immunization knowledge among the community impedes them from actively seeking immunization services.
But despite systemic weaknesses, the province is taking impressive steps to not only improve but improve equitable immunization coverage. Lakki Marwat will be amongst the three priority districts in which the provincial government will be working on social mobilization in 2016.
One thing was evident – this was not a place frequented by visitors from other towns, let alone women. I recalled when, during our discussion, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa EPI Program Manager had, in a sort of challenging cum daring tone, suggested Lakki for the advocacy session with community, if I was really serious in doing a meaningful session. However, while confirming the date and venue, the District EPI Coordinator of Lakki had clearly said I should return home by evening alluding to the place not being safe for women to stay the night.
Knowingly leaving this last piece of information from any conversation I had with my family on my impending visit to Lakki, I did, however, return the same night travelling a good 13 hours on the road. In retrospect, it was one journey I found to be far more satisfying than many others I have taken in my quest to spread the knowledge about the value of vaccinating children against childhood diseases.
Huma Khawar is an IVAC consultant who works on immunization advocacy with stakeholders on the ground in Pakistan.