DOUALA, CAMEROON —
The government of Cameroon has conducted another crackdown on Pentecostal churches. The second attack came after the Ministry of Health charged earlier this year that leaders of some Pentecostal churches are partly responsible for the country’s faltering efforts to exterminate poliomyelitis.
The closures follow the government shut-down of more than 100 Pentecostal churches that lacked government authorization to operate. In that earlier move, authorities blamed Pentecostals for what they called anti-social practices - deadly exorcisms, separation and divorces, nighttime uproars and the extortion of naïve worshippers.
Until late last year, Cameroon appeared to be polio-free. But between September and November, health officials were dumb-founded following the detection of four cases of wild poliovirus in the West Region.
The findings raised concerns that polio has returned to a country that 25 years after it launched a successful eradication drive.
Dr. Marie Ekobela, coordinator of the National Immunization Program in the Ministry of Health, blames hardline Pentecostal doctrines for the polio-resurgence.
“The first case was detected in a 7-year-old child in September. That’s unusual because a 7-year-old should have been vaccinated. The kid belonged to a family wherein the grandfather is an official with a Pentecostal church and who doesn’t want to hear anything about vaccination. So this child was not immunized and her infection was the source of this epidemic.”
Lame youth blames her Pentecostal mother
Delphine Manka’a, the 15-year-old daughter of a Pentecostal church-going mother in the largest city, Douala, has not walked since she was two. Lame in both legs, she is restricted to a wheelchair and crutches.
Polio is spread by direct exposure to carriers of the virus who have eaten foods contaminated with the feces or saliva droplets of already infected persons. The virus assaults the central nervous system, causing mild or total paralysis of muscles in the limbs, neck, abdomen or the face.
Manka’a says it has been hard to pardon her mother who refused to allow her immunization against the highly contagious disease.
“I wouldn’t be paralyzed if she had let me get the vaccine when I was young,” said the youth. “It was only after my case that she decided to go against the church belief, which does not accept vaccination. My two brothers are all fine because they were vaccinated.”
Health experts agree the hardline Pentecostal dogma against immunization and vaccination-apathy that exists among some Muslim communities are roadblocks in Cameroon’s protracting struggle against polio.
Targeting 6.2 million children
In January, the government organized a counter-offensive to the outbreak with a nationwide door-to-door immunization campaign targeting over 6.2 million children aged zero to ten years. It was the first of three interventions lined up for first three months of 2014.
Inoculators reported slight slumps in resistance associated with cultural beliefs, concerns over vaccine-safety and rumors claiming the vaccines are intended to render African children barren.
“Several people are still hesitant even though the vaccines are given free of charge,” said Fokou, a vaccination supervisor in Douala. “In my coverage area, I did not really experience resistance so to speak, but hesitation.
People don’t easily fathom the reason for the repeated campaigns and so are a bit suspicious. But once we explain that it’s because four cases were detected last year and could spread countrywide, most understand and let us into their homes.
Across the country, healthworkers are formulating assorted charm offensives in bids to boost vaccination coverage rates.
Offering mothers soap as bait
Ernestine Rose Tsafack, a health district service head in Douala, told VOA they offer mothers an incentive to bring their children in for vaccinations. “We think this is stimulating them.”
A similar bait in the mainly Muslim North Region enabled an over 90 percent coverage rate. But observers reckon the likelihood of a complete eradication in Cameroon in the near future appears remote.
Dr. Ekobela says their challenges include health threats from their neighbors. “Since the start of 2013, there has been a steady influx of refugees fleeing conflicts in Nigeria and the Central African Republic and there’s no guarantee that these people are polio-free.
“Also, there’s the fact that some parents don’t respect vaccination calendars and on our side, healthcare delivery is scaled down by the lack of sufficient funds.”
She says if surveillance gaps are bridged, rapid detection and crossborder diagnosis systems installed and year-long top quality immunization campaigns adopted, polio eradication may be feasible by next year.