Unicef Heroes: Fighting sickness with donkey power

An unusual ally has been enlisted in the fight against polio in the war-torn mountains of Yemen: donkeys.
Published on
August 4, 2017

This year, 40,000 vaccinators from UNICEF will spread across the conflict-ridden nation in a door-to-door campaign to vaccinate five million children against polio. But the mountainous terrain, oppressive heat, and heavy loads mean the teams are roping in four-legged members to work alongside the humans.

Ever since the conflict in Yemen escalated in March 2015, the country has had limited electricity and erratic fuel supply. But donkeys don’t run on electricity or petrol.

Ahmed Ahmed Abdullah’s donkey is arguably the most important member of his team. This sturdy, resilient animal is contributing immensely towards saving children’s lives in Yemen by carrying an all-important gas cylinder used to power a generator that keeps the vaccine container cold, preventing the vaccines from degrading.

Ever since the conflict in Yemen escalated in March 2015, the country has had limited electricity and erratic fuel supply. But donkeys don’t run on electricity or petrol.

Today, Ahmed’s team is tasked with vaccinating children in the remote village of Al’anaf, but getting there isn’t easy — it’s located behind a rugged mountain with no road or path leading to it.

After loading all of the necessary items on the donkey’s back, Ahmed’s team sets off for the mountain top in sweltering heat. By the halfway point, their hearts are pounding, and a rest is needed. Ahmed uses the break as an opportunity to remind his colleagues of the task ahead.

More than two million malnourished children in Yemen are living on the brink of famine, and face an extremely high risk of disease.

“When ready to move, we need to check that the load on the donkey’s back is firmly tied. Prepare yourselves and get ready for climbing. When we reach the villages, you need to write down how many children are there in each house. If a house has no child, write that down too, even if it’s locked,” Ahmed says.

After a tortuous ascent and descent, Ahmed and his team are finally in Al’anaf. The children and their families have been waiting anxiously. They had been informed through radio announcements days ahead of the polio campaign that a team of vaccinators would be visiting their village soon.

“This vaccine will protect your child from polio,” Ahmed tells the parents holding the vial in his hand. “If your child gets polio and becomes disabled, the whole family will suffer because you have to take care of the child and carry him everywhere, even to the toilet.”

Health workers make their way to deliver polio vaccines to the remote village of Bani Mansour. Photo: Moohi Al-Zikri

According to Ahmed, his team covers around 20 to 30 households each day over the course of the three-day campaign. After a child is vaccinated, his or her index finger is marked, and the house is marked as well, to make sure that no child is missed.

The campaign comes at a critical time when the population, particularly children, are extremely vulnerable. More than two million malnourished children in Yemen are living on the brink of famine, and face an extremely high risk of disease. A cholera epidemic sweeping the country has left now affected almost 400,000 people. Over half of Yemen’s medical facilities are closed or partially functioning, and the health system is on the verge of a collapse.

“We need to vaccinate our children because they are a part of us,” Ahmed says, “We will not leave out even a single child.”

To support UNICEF’s work for children in Yemen, click here