Skip to main content

The drumbeat of change in Pakistan

Punjab’s folk drummers help build trust for polio vaccinators


The sound of drums is enough to rouse even the sun. As tea stall owners set up shop for the day, curious women peek out of their windows and children rush out of houses to flock to the mysterious drummer in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. As he moves from street to street, they run alongside him. Flushed with excitement, they start dancing to the familiar local tunes, some of the children falling over each other, but all smiling. It is a welcome distraction on a cold January morning.

This lively scene, however, is no accident. A banner draped around the drummer carries a message encouraging families to participate in the upcoming polio vaccination campaign. This attention-grabbing approach, blending cultural traditions with polio awareness efforts, is the brainchild of UNICEF’s Social Behavior Change team working with the government’s Provincial Polio Emergency Operations Centre in Punjab.

Leading this creative team is Sajida Mansoor, who understands that information overload on polio vaccination can overwhelm parents, at times to the point of inaction.

“Out-of-the-box thinking was required to respond to the challenge. That’s how we came up with this unconventional but fun idea of using drums to spread awareness and highlight key immunization dates to reach children, especially those who were consistently missing polio vaccination,” says Mansoor, a longtime UNICEF staff member supporting polio eradication efforts in the country.

Zafar Iqbal (left) plays a folk drum known as a dhol to draw a crowd and help raise awareness of an upcoming polio vaccination campaign in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

Courtesy of UNICEF Pakistan

Zafar Iqbal, the drummer, suddenly stops playing to allow people to hear the call to prayer from the local mosque. Iqbal, who plays a folk drum known as a dhol, is a seasoned professional musician who sustains his livelihood by showcasing his talent at various cultural events when he is not engaged with the polio eradication program.

But the polio percussion show isn’t over yet. Joining Iqbal at center stage is 7-year-old Gul Bahisht, who confidently delivers a brief speech she has composed: “I have been vaccinated. Why not vaccinate your child too? It’s easy and simple. Just two drops for your child in every campaign and we will all be free from polio forever.”

Iqbal resumes the rhythmic beat of his drums, bringing immense laughter and joy to the children and their families.

This strategy has struck a chord with communities. In neighborhoods where the initiative was first introduced, parents became more receptive. This enabled health workers to vaccinate a large cohort of children who had consistently missed vaccination due to reasons cited as “not available,” which often meant the parents did not open their doors to vaccinators. Children, too, embraced the teams with trust, resulting in more efficient vaccination coverage.

“This approach has helped us break down the barriers with caregivers, and they are more receptive to communicating with us,” Mansoor says. “We are dedicated to ensuring that our teams on the ground actively respect the religious and cultural norms of the local community.”

In spots across Rawalpindi and the city of Lahore where the drummer strategy was introduced, polio teams managed to vaccinate every available child. This was a significant contribution to the 96 percent vaccination coverage achieved in Punjab province during the campaign in January.

Back in Rawalpindi, Iqbal’s percussion jam for polio eradication continues to reverberate in the neighborhood. A father himself, he made sure his youngest daughter was vaccinated at 2 months old during the recent campaign.

“I feel very happy and blessed that the beats from my drums bring joy to people,” Iqbal says with a smile, “and at the same time support an important cause that protects our children in Pakistan from deadly diseases like polio.”

Wasif Mahmood is a UNICEF polio communication officer. This story originally appeared on the website of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative,

This story originally appeared in the May 2024 issue of Rotary magazine.

With your help, we can end polio for good.