Q+A: Marie-Irène Richmond-Ahoua, polio champion

Meet Marie-Irène Richmond-Ahoua. She’s an international communications consultant and member of the Rotary Club of Abidjan-Bietry, Côte d’Ivoire. A leader who has held senior positions in Rotary, she has led countless on-the-ground immunization efforts and served as an outreach advisor for the United Nations operations in her country. 

Tell us how you first got involved in polio eradication volunteering.
In Côte d'Ivoire, it was not until 1987 that Rotary began to vaccinate against five childhood diseases including polio as part of a national campaign initiated by the Ministry of Health. Rotary took an active role supporting the Ivoirian government. The Rotary Foundation provided funds that helped purchase cold chain equipment and fuel for the transport of vaccines, and train staff. Rotarians here helped by identifying children to be immunized, raising funds for boxes for vaccines, carrying out social mobilization, and promoting media coverage. At that time, I was a member of the Rotaract Club of Abidjan and I was happy and enthusiastic to participate in this campaign.

What made you become passionate about the goal of polio eradication?
In my country, I would see children crawling on all fours, unable to walk. I then asked myself, “How would these children — the future of Africa — develop if they could not walk?” For me, we had to act quickly! At that time, I did not know really how to do it, but I knew the important thing was to change their lives and I was captivated by the action Rotary was taking in my country. I believe that being helpful and serving humbly provides an invaluable moral fulfillment.

You were among the first women Rotary leaders working on polio eradication in Africa. Tell us about your experience working with other women on this cause.
For the longest time, women were regarded as mere recipients. Increasingly, the role of women is being recognized, though not very visible. They remain an under-utilized resource and yet they play a decisive role. Women are the ones who are in charge of their children most of the time and who bring them to vaccinators. They are also the ones who might hide or run away from volunteers into the fields during a vaccination. So we have to fully involve women in social mobilization during National Immunization Days. We partner with women’s groups, NGOs working on women’s health, midwife associations, and even women working as food sellers in the market.  They are aware that by vaccinating their children, they ensure a healthy future for themselves, thanks to Rotary and its partners.

What is your response to those who say polio eradication is too expensive or impossible?
We truly believe in what we are doing. In this war against polio, we are an army of volunteers and these two small drops are our weapon. All conditions to win this fight are practically met: an effective vaccine, a proven door-to-door strategy, a good level of monitoring, human and financial resources. Nothing is too expensive for the health of our children. We firmly believe that polio will be the second disease eradicated from this planet after smallpox, which happened in 1980. We Africans know only too well that other pressing issues are a priority, but we are determined to end polio once and for all, because if we do not achieve our goal in the next three years, we face the threat of an even stronger resurgence of polio whose eradication is not an option but an obligation. We have never been so close to the goal. The incidence of polio has been reduced by 99.9% worldwide. It seems essential to explain to parents and the public that, to use an athletic analogy, we are in the final sprint, which is always the most challenging part of the race.

What about the challenges?
We face a funding gap, inaccessibility of some children living in remote areas, lack of political will, civil conflicts, and other challenges. So it is therefore urgent that we renew our efforts and remobilize the troops to address these challenges. In endemic countries, the priority is to reach all children, regardless their place of residence and their previous vaccination status, and vaccinate them. A world without polio, our longtime dream, is about to be realized.

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Arnold R. Grahl | Oct. 17, 2018