It’s a sunny afternoon in Laskumbo- a fishing community in Idenau, some 50 miles away from Limbe. The sea lashes on the edges of the village. Truck pushers keep streaming in with bags of fresh fish. In the traditional kitchens, women prepare the fish for smoking. Kids play in the sand.
The village is indeed a beehive of activity.
Most of the residents here are foreigners- Ghanaians, Togolese, Nigerians, Malians, and the locals live side-by-side in this place and seem to have adopted a common attitude: they don’t attach much importance to hospitals and therefore are oblivious about the vaccination of their children.
The war for self-determination that has pitted the Cameroon military against pro-independence fighters as well as the Coronavirus pandemic has given the people more reasons to flee from hospitals.
“Why should I go to hospital? What if I get infected by the Coronavirus? Who will take care of my children?” Said Josephine Agbor, a mother of five who fled fighting in the North West two years ago in search of safety and calm.
That answer sums up the attitude of the fisherfolk and tells the larger story of how the Covid-19 pandemic and the war have affected healthcare in the English-speaking regions. But the problem isn’t only with recipients of healthcare services. It also has to do with professionals in the sector.
Paul Tasong, Coordinator of the Presidential Plan for the reconstruction of the conflict-battered region puts the situation rather tersely.
“In 2016 we had some 170 doctors in the hospitals and health centers. By 2019, that situation fell to 71 doctors, and the specialists became very rare. And we noticed that the rate of women giving birth to children at home in 2016 was slightly above 2% in the two regions, but unfortunately by 2019/2020, this situation degraded, and up to 9% of women gave birth to children at home. This is catastrophic. The same situation is reflected in the rate of vaccinations in the two regions where it became almost impossible for the vaccination teams to reach out to the populations. The figures in terms of vaccinations are disastrous.”
But a World Bank-sponsored project- the Pandemic Emergency Fund, PEF is changing the picture. Communities like Laskumbo are now enjoying the benefits of vaccination because healthcare officials don’t wait on the communities to come to hospital anymore.
Ferdinand Chai, the head of the Idenau Health District told Timescape Magazine that his staff go to the homes of the fisherfolk to vaccinate them against such diseases as cervical cancer, measles, and diarrhea.
“Very few parents accept having their children vaccinated. Even those who know that it helps prevent diseases,” he said.
He said it’s been a struggle convincing parents to get their kids vaccinated even through the door-to-door campaign.
“There are so many women who give birth at home with the aid of traditional birth attendants, and they usually don’t see why the children should be vaccinated,” he said.
Across the region- be it in Buea, Tiko, or Limbe, the narrative is the same: parents are reluctant to vaccinate their kids. And the reasons aren’t only the war and the Covid-19 pandemic, but also cultural beliefs which hinder immunization.
But the PEF Project is changing attitudes.
“By telling them the importance of vaccination, we infiltrated these communities to raise awareness. Our collaborators went to their homes to vaccinate them, thanks to the project that has just ended,” says Dr. Daniel Nebongo, Support Manager of the immunization service delivery section and focal point for the activities of the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) in the North-West and South-West regions.
Josephine Agbor now says her nine-year-old daughter has been vaccinated against cervical cancer.
“They (the vaccination team) said they want my daughter to be spared the pains of ever contracting cervical cancer,” she said.
“So, I really appreciate what they have done because so many of our children are really suffering from those viral diseases that at the end of the day when they grow up, they are unable to give birth due to maybe some kind of diseases that they are passing through.”
Dr. Nebongo says the vaccination rate in the region has increased by 24%. At the onset of the war in 2017, vaccination coverage in the South West was as high as 90%. By 2020, it had dropped to 43% thanks to both the war and the Covid-19 pandemic.
But the PEF project introduced in 2020 has taken up the coverage level, to nearly 67%-a 24% improvement.
Health officials in the region believe that immunization campaigns could continue to strengthen these figures were the PEF Project to continue.