Ukrainian doctors trained in communicating about polio and vaccines

WHO/N Alexander

Dr Oleg Tokarchuk was one of 22 health officials from Ukraine who attended a training course on clear communication about polio and the polio vaccine.

It is a nerve-wracking set up: In a hotel conference room in Kyiv, Ukraine, a doctor sits in front of a TV camera being grilled with questions and accusations about polio and the vaccine to fight it. To make matters worse, he is surrounded by an audience of his peers, who listen keenly to every word. 

Luckily, this is only a training course. But it may not be long before Dr Oleg Tokarchuk – who is Chief Physician at the Children's Hospital in Kolomyia, Ivano-Frankivsk oblast – will face live cameras and real questions. Because the country is facing its first cases of polio in 19 years, after the virus was identified in two children. On 1 September 2015, the Government broke the news of the outbreak and plans to launch a massive response. 

As the country prepares its response, one of the toughest battles to be fought will be explaining the disease and the vaccine that prevents it. 

"There are people who want the vaccine for their children, and there are people who have a negative image of vaccinations," says Dr Tokarchuk. "These are sometimes the same people. They have a mess of information in their heads, and we have to help them sort out that mess."

To provide medical officials and health workers with the information they need – and the best way to deliver that information – UNICEF has organized a series of training courses with the Ministry of Health and support from WHO. The one attended by Dr Tokarchuk focused on media skills, but others focus on interpersonal communication and reaching people in underserved areas. 

"Not just for polio, I have been hoping for this type and quality of training for a long time," says Dr Tokarchuk. "We have the knowledge, but if we are not able to communicate it, then we can't reach our goal."

UNICEF medical expert Kateryna Bulavinova led the course. "They are professionals with all the right intentions," she said. "But they need help in using their knowledge and skills to the best advantage. We cannot afford to have the message lost because of poor communication." 

Poor access and scepticism about the vaccine in Ukraine

While Dr Tokarchuk works on his communications skills, UNICEF, WHO and other partners have been working to improve the access of the Ukrainian people to much-needed vaccines. It is the combination of scepticism and poor access that have left the country with one of the lowest immunization rates in Europe, and even the world.

"Even parents who want to vaccinate their children sometimes find there is no vaccine available. Access is another hurdle for the country to overcome, and one we have been pushing towards for a long time," says Dr Dorit Nitzan, the WHO Representative in Ukraine. "In this outbreak, thanks to funds from the Government of Canada, the country has enough polio vaccine for the first round of vaccination. It is urgent to start the response to protect the children of Ukraine and avoid secondary consequences on travel and trade."