The Rumour Hunter

23 Oct 2015

To mark World Polio Day 2015, Jim Calverley, our Parliamentary Advocacy Officer working on Polio, spoke with Faleke Bolanle, a health educator from Nigeria. Here's what he found out:  This week, I had the pleasure of hosting Faleke Bolanle, a health educator working in Lagos State, Nigeria. She has been doing the job for 10 years and completed her Youth Service Corps in Ogobia in Benue State, having trained at the University of Ilorin in Kwara State. Nigeria recently came off the polio endemic list and has now been polio-free for 15 months. This is an extraordinary achievement in a country of over 175 million people, with an under 5 population (those most susceptible to polio) that comprises 20% of that number.

Faleke supervises a group of volunteers in Ikeja that she calls Polio Champions. These are people who come from different walks of life but share a desire to help end polio in Nigeria. They go to hard to reach areas with vaccines to immunise children and do this by motorbike, canoe or on foot. Faleke is what is called in Nigeria, a rumour-hunter. She works as part of a team to trace rumours that have an adverse impact on the acceptance of polio vaccines (or any other vaccine). In most cases, the rumour-monger will be someone who is in a position to influence others: a religious, community or traditional leader. Rumours may well travel from other parts of Nigeria. For example, a rumour spread some years ago that the polio vaccine caused sterility. Faleke found out from various village meetings that this rumour had come from the North of Nigeria. Faleke then had to find the local ‘carrier’ of the rumour in Ikeja. Another rumour that came from the East of the country was that the measles vaccine causes death and that drinking coconut water would prevent children from catching the disease. The team that addresses these rumours consists of Faleke, the medical officer, the community health extension worker and the traditional leader (known as the ‘baale’). The rumours are sufficiently serious that they warrant this huge commitment of time and resources. Information about a ‘rumour-monger’ in Faleke’s local government of Ikeja normally comes from the community action team. When this information gets back to her, the team speak to the community by calling a village meeting, where probing questions are asked about the rumour. Sometimes, the rumour-monger will be at the village meeting. Faleke and her team will speak to the person about the concerns which invariably arise from a lack of information. They will speak to the person about their concerns which invariably arise from a lack of information. She will provide him/her with flyers and posters which contain information about polio and the benefits of the vaccine to children. Most of the time, Faleke can persuade the individual that vaccines are not dangerous for children at the village meeting but sometimes she will have to come back and speak to the person again. It is a difficult process that takes time but the importance of the outcome means that it is worth the time taken. Faleke understands that these people ultimately do want to protect their children and has to convey, with a great degree of patience, that are on the same side; it is the health of the children that is all-important. Most of the time, the rumour-monger will not come to the village meeting because they are so angry and sceptical that they are not interested in listening to Faleke or her team. If that is the case, she will normally find out from people at the village meeting who the rumour-monger is and where they live so that she can go and speak to them. Sometimes, the team will take a polio survivor with them and explain that they are trying to help children, not to harm them in any way. Children do of course get ill but they explain that they do not get ill because of vaccines. Sometimes, parents even try to lie to Faleke about whether they have children that need to be vaccinated. Faleke will look for children’s slippers or clothing on a drying rack – both of which are tell-tale signs of children in the house. Faleke explained that people in Nigeria do not want government officials coming to their house – it conveys something of a stigma to the household. She recognises that some parents may simply pretend to agree with what she says to get rid of her. She has come to recognise that body language and will keep tabs on such people to ensure that the children continue to be immunised. Faleke and her team have a specific way of marking a household that has accepted the polio vaccine: a tick inside a circle. A rejection translates to RX inside a circle. A tick with no circle means that there are more members of the household that need to be immunised. It is testament to the amazing work carried out by her and her team that Faleke has to deal less and less with rumours (and the suspicion and misinformation that are behind them). She can concentrate on making sure that Nigeria is certified polio-free in 2 years’ time and on delivering the other health interventions that the polio champions deliver including: Vitamin A and zinc supplementation, deworming, Oral Rehydration Salts, measles vaccine, long-lasting insecticidal nets, advice to pregnant women for ante-natal registration and also for HIV status. It’s a long list and one that makes it clear that money spent on polio does not just benefit polio but a whole range of other health interventions. It has been such a privilege to meet Faleke – a more caring and kind person you could not hope to meet. Just don’t try to spread any rumours…

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Naveed Chaudhri

Head of Campaigns

Naveed Chaudhri is the Head of Campaigns. Naveed’s passion is to help build grassroots campaigns networks to increase public support for improving the lives of people in poor communities. Previously working at Oxfam and VSO, he has long experience managing activism and campaigning programmes,...

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