MANILA (UPDATE) — For Rodel Battaler, going to different houses in Laguna last year despite the risk of catching COVID-19 was just part of the job.
Assisted by crutches, Battaler, a polio survivor, served as "social mobilizer" for humanitarian organization Relief International, and went to far-flung communities and remote areas in Laguna in 2020 to reach children who have missed out on routine immunization against preventable diseases, especially polio.
Such role is crucial amid heightened vaccine hesitancy in the country in the wake of a controversy over anti-dengue shots from 2017, and the resurgence of preventable diseases including polio.
In an interview, Battaler told ABS-CBN News he initially applied for the job after his contract with a government agency as a social worker lapsed, and he needed another job.
When he got accepted, the 40-year-old admitted his colleagues doubted whether he would be able to do such intensive and tiring fieldwork. But, he said, he has strong faith about his cause.
"Siguro na-challenge sila noong nilagay ko sa resume ko na aside from being a polio victim, I want to be a part of the community mobilizer," he said in an interview with ABS-CBN News on Friday.
(Maybe they were also challenged when I said in my resume I am a polio victim)
"Siyempre sa experience ko na mayroong ganito, masasabi ko na sa bawat family na hindi po ganoon kadali na magkaroon ng ganitong kapansanan, kung kayo po may pagkakataon para maiwasan at mailayo ang inyong mga anak sa ganitong pagkakataon, [gawin ito]" he added.
(I used my experience and told every family that my condition is hard. That's why if they have the opportunity to prevent their children from having this, they should take it.)
Battaler, whose family hails from Sta. Cruz, Laguna, contracted polio as he had missed out on getting vaccinated.
Asked why his parents were not able to have him vaccinated, he said the polio shot at the time was expensive. They did not even know what polio was, and initially thought he just had convulsions.
"Dahil hindi naman aware parents ko, isa ako sa mga inabot (ng polio.) Suwerte pa ako dahil nakapag-aral pa ako, 'yung iba may mga namamatay kaya sinasabi namin, iba na 'yung may bakuna," he said.
(My parents were not aware of polio, one of the reasons why I think I had it. I was still lucky because I was able to study, some people just died. This is why we said having a vaccine is better than none.)
Battaler was just one of 1,934 social mobilizers for Relief International and its partner United Nations Children's Fund's
(UNICEF) fight against vaccine misinformation in the country.
As "vaccine champions," they work hand-in-hand with barangay health workers and local officials, according to UNICEF, to make sure that every child in their area of assignment would be inoculated.
"They act as a second line of defense against vaccine refusals and hesitancy, going to the most isolated and hard-to-reach areas, often walking long distances across difficult terrain, or crossing rough seas," the UN agency said.
The role is important in the Philippines, Battaler said, as most parents he encountered in the field were worried about the risks that vaccines could bring instead of welcoming the long-term benefits of getting immunized.
Among reasons for vaccine refusal include injections scare, the Dengvaxia issue, supposedly having their own doctors and health plans, and the possibility of being infected with COVID-19 when they interact with frontliners, he pointed out.
Battaler said social mobilizers usually counter these fears by assuring parents that social workers will be with them all throughout the process, explaining to them how important it is to get their children vaccinated.
"Hindi ko po kayang mabigyan ng kasiguraduhan na [walang]... may ibang side effects na lalabas. [Pero] sinisigurado po namin na one call away lang 'yung vaccinators [kasama] na rin po kami na mga nagha-house-to-house na nangungumbinsi," Battaler said.
(I can't guarantee there won't be any side effects but we assure them we, and the health workers, are just a call away should anything happen.)
"Sa ganoon ay gusto po namin ipaliwanag na ang bakuna po ay ligtas kasi 'pag walang bakuna, mas lalong hindi po natin napapangalagaan ang tao."
(In that way we want to explain to them that vaccines are safe, and we would be able to take care of people when they get the jabs.)
The key to getting more people vaccinated is through an information drive and spreading awareness, he said, as misinformation thrives among those who lack knowledge about routine immunization.
More people on the ground must also explain the vaccination process thoroughly, he added.
"Pagdating sa bakuna, ang pagbibigay ng tamang impormasyon, at pagkalap ng impormasyon sa kalusugan ng tao, siguro mas mahalaga 'yon. Ang proper awareness sa katawan ng tao, mas mahalaga 'yon... Madali sana 'yan kung may maipapakita tayong basis... na hindi 'yan makakasira sa ganito," he added, noting how they were able to convince parents to have their children vaccinated during their fieldwork.
(It is important to give the correct information regarding vaccination, as well as information on a person's health. Proper awareness on a person's body is more important, most especially when we would be able to show them that vaccines won't hurt them)
To date, the country has detected 17 polio cases, UNICEF said, with mass inoculation drives against this and other preventable diseases delayed or suspended due to lockdown restrictions.
The Philippines was declared polio-free in 2000 but after 19 years, the disease reemerged in a 3-year-old girl from Lanao Del Sur, while the virus was also detected in water sewage samples in Manila and Davao.
According to the Department of Health (DOH), poliovirus is a highly infectious disease which can be transmitted by ingesting contaminated food or water. It is usually found in places with poor sanitation and can also be caused by bad personal hygiene.
Signs and symptoms include fever, fatigue, headache, vomiting, stiff neck and sudden onset of floppy arms or legs. Severe cases can lead to permanent paralysis or even death.
The vaccine champion said that catching polio at an early age was difficult, and his family did their best to prevent him from being bed-ridden.
"Based sa findings ng aking condition, nabasa ko po doon na magiging bed-ridden ako. 'Yun nga lang masuwerte ako sa pamilya ko, ginawan nila ng paraan," said Battaler.
(I read from my findings that I was going to be bed-ridden all my life. I was just lucky enough that my family found a way to help me)
"Hanggang sa unti-unti, natuto akong gumapang, gumamit ng saklay, at dahil sa nahirapan ako sa mga bagay na 'yun, kaya po ako nagsusumikap na kumbinsihin 'yung bawat family (about polio)"
(I was able to crawl, then later on use my crutches because it was difficult for me to have this condition. This is why I am trying my best to convince every family about polio.)
Battaler said he also experienced bullying when he was young because of polio. Aside from this, he also faced challenges looking for a job, noting discrimination against survivors like him.
He lamented that there was a time when he got accepted during job fairs, even passing the exams for jobs he applied to. But when he had to report to the office for a job interview, he was rejected supposedly because of his condition.
"Marunong ka... 'Yun ang pinakamasakit noon, pinapunta ka roon only para sabihin na hindi ka puwede. Puwede ka naman nila hindi papuntahin doon," he noted.
(You are educated. But it was painful when I was asked to go there only to find out you did not qualify. They could have asked me to just not come.)
"Sa ngayon, mapalad pa rin pero paghahanap ng trabaho, lalo na ngayon sa ekonomiya ng Pilipinas, napakahirap."
(I still consider myself lucky but whenever I am looking for a job, most especially during this time, it is very difficult.)
This is why he is appealing to the government to help people like him find job opportunities, because this would be sustainable for them in the long-run instead of depending on financial aid.
"Sa totoo lang, kadalasan... [alam ng local officials] kahit sila alam na may kapansanan ka [pero] bibigyan ka ng pansaing, pero pagkatapos ng isang linggo babalik kami para sa pansaing uli diba? Ang madalas kong sinasabi, better sana kung bibigyan niyo kami ng hanapbuhay," he said.
(To be honest, most of the time, the local officials know you are disabled. They will give you food to cook, but what happens is after a week, we will need to wait again. I always say that it is better if these people will give us jobs)
While the government has programs for people with disabilities, he said these mostly focus on financial help.
"Tanungin nila kaming mga may kapansanan, ano ba 'yung mga programang inilabas nila?... After 'yung P1,500 maubos na, ano maghihintay uli kami na may magbibigay?"
(They should ask us what we really need. What were their projects? That P1,500, once we use up all of it, what's next?)
OVERCOMING VACCINE FEARS
Battaler said the reemergence of polio and the growing vaccine hesitancy in the country were just among the reasons community workers like him have to work harder, even in the middle of the pandemic.
"'Yung mga panahon na 'yun, akala rin namin kami ay magkakaroon nga COVID dahil... ang pagkilos ng social community mobilizers ay ganoon ganoon lang pero nakataya rin po ang buhay namin," he said.
(We also thought that we would have COVID during our fieldwork. People think our jobs are easy but our lives are also at risk.)
"Kaya po kami lumalabas at patuloy na nangungumbinsi, kinukumbinsi ang bawat isa nang sa ganoon ay mapangalagaan, at siyempre ang pangunahin namin ay ang kaligtasan at kalusugan ng bawat tao na aming pinupuntahan," he pointed out.
(We go out there to convince everyone to get vaccinated. In this way we will be able to protect their health.)
He said that having polio made him commit to the gargantuan task, with the goal of families overcoming their doubts and fears of vaccines.
He also praised his fellow community mobilizers who are working hard and persistent with their mission despite the health crisis.
"[Pangalawa] na [lang] po 'yung kaligtasan ng aming sarili, pangunahin na ang aming pinupuntahan. Sila ang inuuna namin para masiguro na sila ay ligtas at nasa maayos na kalagayan."
(Our safety comes second, we are prioritizing the welfare of the people we go to. We put them first to make sure they will be safe.)
Battaler said he is still waiting for another opportunity to become a social mobilizer to further fight for the cause.
He added that he is also looking for other jobs for the long-term, such as becoming a regular employee, as he has a mother to support.
Battaler is currently an "awareness facilitator" for people like him who have disabilities.
According to the health department in March, some 800,000 Filipinos aged 5 years old below are still unvaccinated from measles, rubella, and polio in target regions.
From October last year to March, 6.1 million children have been inoculated against polio, while 8.5 million children have also received their measles and rubella jabs.
As the country celebrates World Immunization Week, the DOH, UNICEF and World Health Organization (WHO) urged Filipinos to have their children inoculated against preventable diseases.
Vaccination from these diseases, they said, prevent 2 million to 3 million global deaths annually.