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Imperilled in Yemen: Fast thinking for health

2011 - This amazing post comes to us courtesy of Nahad Sadr-Azodi, a technical officer for immunization at WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office. Nahad gathered stories of vaccination heroes from across the region for Immunization Week.

While the week is past, this story of two WHO officers in Yemen will stay with all of us. It’s a strong reminder that public health matters to people on all sides of unrest. Read on:

With about 20 people gathered in a room, Mr Abdul Malik Mofadal proceeds with giving a presentation. “Thank God, my laptop battery is fully charged,” Abdul Malik murmurs to himself.

Abdul Malik, a long-time WHO staff with the Basic Development Needs programme and Mr Abduldaem Thabet, a WHO driver, are not in a big hall with proper seats, microphones and projectors.

The date is 19 May 2011, during a period of unrest in Yemen. Abdul Malik and Abduldaem are standing in a cold room dimly lit by the sun, at the house of a local sheikh. Abdul Malik and Abduldaem are not presenting to a captive audience. In fact, their audience are their captors. Abdul Malik and Abduldaem are being held hostage!

They were on their way back to Sana’a from the Hodeidah governorate when a group of armed, tribal men blocked the road and stopped their vehicle. They were taken to the local sheikh’s house, where the captors expressed their anger and frustration with their living conditions and lack of services, such as healthcare, electricity and water.

“I explained that we were with WHO and that we help communities in different health issues, including primary health care and immunization,” recalls Abdul Malik.

Three hours passed…

“I thought to myself; why not show them some evidence of our work?” Abdul Malik mentioned. “I took out my laptop and showed them a documentary video on Basic Development Needs (BDN), followed by a presentation on the WHO programmes.”

It took Mr Abdul Malik 45 minutes to cover the WHO services and programmes, including routine immunization, measles supplementary campaigns and national polio immunization days.

“I showed that the coverage of vaccination in BDN areas was higher than non-BDN areas because of community engagement and health education,” explained Abdul Malik. A spirited discussion ensued. The captors wanted to know more about the WHO services, including vocational training, literacy courses and income-generation activities.

Abdul Malik patiently responded to every question, hoping for a breakthrough. Finally, after 9 hours of captivity and negotiations, Abdul Malik and Abduldaem were released.

The breakthrough came when the sheikh and the WHO Representative agreed (through Abdul Malik translating over the phone) that their village would be considered for the BDN network once the security situation improves.

Undoubtedly, the sheikh rested easier that night knowing that all the children in his village will be soon protected against vaccine-preventable diseases. WHO will rest easier once the security situation allows it to implement the programme in the sheikh’s village.

To see the photo of Abdul Malik and Abduldaem, please go to where you will find many inspiring stories of immunization in the Eastern Mediterranean region. With thanks to Nahad Sadr-Azodi and EMRO for sharing this story, and to Abdul Malik and Abduldaem for continuing the work despite challenges most of us could not even fathom.

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