A colorful blur of children jumps over open sewage snaking along dirt roads and paths in Damangaza, an urban slum clinging to the outskirts of Abuja, Nigeria. They play between hundreds of make-shift homes held upright by wood, mud and corrugated metal sheets. The lack of electricity, running water or plumbing makes it difficult to protect the children, among 6,000 vulnerable inhabitants, from diseases. But it’s not impossible—as my team at the Vaccine Network for Disease Control has worked hard to achieve over the past five years.
When I first stepped foot here in 2011, vaccine-preventable diseases and deaths were rampant. Immunization was nonexistent. Our fierce optimism, unyielding determination and creativity changed the status quo for this community, whose trust we have cultivated to teach them how to keep their children alive with vaccines. As a member of the Women Advocates for Vaccine Access (WAVA), a coalition of organizations pushing for greater vaccine access, the Vaccine Network team knew the key: empowering the women. We knew that women are the driving force for health, the advocates for their children.
But this trust did not come easily or quickly. Women selling fruits on the side of a road were the first to introduce me to this village. I explained my intention to conduct a health-related visit, and they agreed to lead me back to their home of Angwan Hausa Damangaza, a Hausa Fulani settlement located at Garki ward of the Abuja Municipal Area Council.
At the time, there were over 1,000 children living in the settlement, with more than 500 of them 5 years of age or younger. A measles outbreak was underway, pneumonia was prevalent, and polio terrorized the village. The combination of vaccine-preventable diseases, malnutrition, and illnesses related to poor access to clean water and sanitation took the lives of around 50 children. The Vaccine Network team rolled up its sleeves and began the work to educate families and connect children to health services—a tall order in a remote urban slum…