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May 8, 2024

Chika Offor: Immunization Advocate

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Chika Offor: Immunization Advocate

People become advocates for many reasons. For Chika Offor, CEO of Vaccine Network for Disease Control (VNDC), a partner of the Global Health Advocacy Incubator (GHAI), it was because of a day in 1995. A day she’d never forget. Cervical cancer took Chika’s mother too soon, creating a gaping vacuum in her life—but also a lifelong mission. 

  1. Chika, when you lost your mother in 1995, you decided you were going to join the fight for immunization in Nigeria. How has your work helped to give you closure on that sad loss?


    The song “Iya iyawo ma gbese lo, ko le ye won bi gbedu se jade (Mother of the bride, come out with your steps and elegance, it is your day)” celebrates the radiant presence of the mother of the bride, exuding joy and pride as her daughter embarks on the journey of marriage. Every child and mother looks forward to this song. It was performed at my sister's wedding in 1994, where our mother graced the occasion with happiness and elegance as the maternal figure of honor. I eagerly anticipated experiencing that same moment at my own wedding. However, my heartache deepened when I got married in 1997 and the song was never played because she was not there. Cervical cancer stole my mother and my joy. I later learned that HPV vaccines protect young girls from contracting the virus which took my mom. “Never again,” became my promise. 


    In that moment, I became aware of the importance of vaccine awareness in preventing a multitude of both emotional and physical diseases. My fate is sealed, I will fight to the death to make sure that nobody goes through what I went through, at least not under my watch. Today, I find immense fulfillment in being a part of the effort to combat vaccine-preventable diseases in Nigeria, notably through the recent rollout of the HPV vaccine. 


    I take pride in knowing that my contributions will help safeguard countless Nigerian girls and women, ensuring that they are present to a life of celebration and contribute to a future free from cervical cancer and preventable illnesses. This is my purpose, my joy and my ongoing commitment.


  2. What triggered your decision to partner with GHAI on immunization advocacy in Nigeria?


    Between 2013 and 2014, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, planned to withdraw its support from Nigeria. However, there had been incomplete releases of national immunization financing since 2022, which was a concern. To facilitate a smooth transition, a task team was established. Being part of this coalition made me realize the significant implications of Gavi’s exit in terms of funding sources, the importance of funding for immunization programs and the overall impact on public health interventions. Securing funding for vaccines is fundamental to the success of various health care interventions and GHAI can help us be successful. 


    They provided us with the necessary capacity and support to do what the organization has always wanted to do. GHAI has extensive experience utilizing advocacy to reduce preventable deaths, enhance health outcomes on a large scale through policy changes and fortify health care systems. VNDC anticipates that this partnership will help to scale up immunization coverage through sustained funding to immunization programs in the country. 


  3. What are the trickiest parts of your work? 


    Pitching Government decision-makers: Government officials have varying levels of understanding of the importance of sustainable funding for immunization and the processes of releasing immunization funds, which can make it challenging to secure their commitment to allocate increased resources and support vaccination initiatives. Additionally, navigating strenuous bureaucratic processes, addressing competing priorities, political factors, lack of accountability, lack of political will and limited resources can further complicate efforts to engage government decision-makers effectively.


    Lack of data: The lack of strong data on disease burden, vaccination coverage rates and the economic benefits of immunization programs makes it difficult to quantify the program's true impact. We struggle to show the return on investment for increased funding when the program's effectiveness cannot be clearly measured. The absence of comprehensive data also makes it hard for decision-makers to prioritize immunization programs against other pressing needs in health care or other sectors. Data can help advocates argue for the urgency of investing in immunization compared to other health priorities.


  4. You seem to know how to get the buy-in of top policymakers such as Finance and Health Ministers to drive change. How do you do this?


    In addition to the conventional advocacy visits and engagements with highly placed policymakers and influencers which have yielded positive results, VNDC has also leveraged partnerships with various government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and coalitions to secure appointments with highly placed decision-makers during this project. We also employed some unconventional advocacy methods which involve visiting government offices without prior notice. 


  5. How does teamwork drive VNDC’s success on immunization advocacy?


    Our teams within VNDC work together to achieve our goals in immunization advocacy. For example, researchers provide data to support the advocacy team's arguments, while the social mobilization team works on social media infographics to increase vaccine financing in Nigeria. VNDC also partners with organizations that share immunization advocacy and program implementation goals, including USAID, PEPFAR/CDC, GHAI, Pathfinder International and the Institute of Human Virology Nigeria (IHVN). Each partner brings its own expertise and resources to the table, strengthening the overall impact. 


  6. Where do you see advocacy for immunization going in terms of our shared strategic workflow on domestic resource mobilization, accountability, sustainability and equity?


    VNDC took a significant step towards securing sustainable funding for immunization and primary health care in Kwara State, Nigeria. We convened a “Multi-Stakeholder Technical Workshop on Domestic Resource Mobilization Strategies for State Immunization and Primary Health Care Financing” with key representatives from the government, civil society organizations, media outlets and other stakeholders. This collaborative effort yielded two key commitments.  First, the state legislature and executive pledged to approve any legislation proposed to increase domestic resource mobilization for health care. Second, the state's finance ministry agreed to prioritize funding for the eventually chosen domestic fundraising strategy.


    VNDC is also looking beyond immediate solutions. We would like a law secured that would ensure the funding mechanism remains in place even if there's a change in government. Furthermore, we prioritize transparency and accountability in how the funds are collected and used. Finally, VNDC seeks a strategy that promotes equity, guaranteeing fair distribution of resources to reach all who need immunization and primary health care services.


    By fostering collaboration among key stakeholders and focusing on a sustainable and legally backed approach, VNDC is working to create a secure funding stream for essential health care services in Kwara State and replicate this in Gombe State. 


Chika Offor at work on a regular day.