Bangladesh’s COVID-19 vaccination rate has soared in a year
How a nation rose to the challenge of getting doses into arms.
When COVID-19 vaccines started to arrive in Bangladesh, people felt a rush of hope. Families and friends could meet again. Life would maybe feel more normal. And it meant schools might reopen.
For children in Bangladesh, the pandemic has been a crisis like no other, affecting their education, health and well-being. About 37 million children in the country missed out on almost 18 months of in-person learning. It was imperative that vaccines were rolled out quickly and for that to happen, the COVAX vaccine sharing initiative was crucial.
It was a year ago that the first COVID-19 vaccines shared through COVAX landed in Bangladesh. COVAX is a ground-breaking global collaboration led by UNICEF and partners, which is committed to the production and equitable distribution of vaccines across the world. Since those doses touched down in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, the country has become the largest recipient of COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX.
At the beginning of June 2021, less than four per cent of Bangladesh’s population had received two doses. One year on, that number now stands at more than 68 per cent.
That achievement is thanks to the efforts of Bangladesh’s government, health officials and development partners. It’s also been made possible by the enormous sacrifice and dedication of health workers and volunteers.
Mammoth task to vaccinate over 115 million people with two doses
Across the country, frontline health workers have been working in urban slums, trekking across fields and navigating rivers to get doses into people’s arms. Thanks to their efforts, over 250 million doses have now been administered, with more than 115 million people receiving two doses of the vaccine.
Young volunteers like Mohammad Al Mamun have risen to the challenge. He’s been going door to door in Naogaon district in northern Bangladesh, urging people to get vaccinated and helping them register.
In Dhaka, 25-year-old student Mahmuda Nasrin Mukta has been helping to spread the message that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and available.
“I’ve seen so many vulnerable people. I enjoy going to people’s homes and raising awareness about vaccination. I love helping them,” Mukta says.
The rise in Bangladesh’s vaccination rate is a big relief to health workers that have been caring for COVID-19 patients in hospitals.
“When the pandemic started, we didn’t have any clue about the virus. We were definitely scared, but that didn’t stop us from fulfilling our duty,” said Nowrin Jahan, an assistant surgeon at Kurmitola General Hospital in Dhaka. She was one of the first health workers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in Bangladesh.
“Now that the vaccine has arrived, we can work without any fear. The end to our dark days has started,” Jahan said after receiving her jab.
Key vaccination target within reach
Bangladesh has a strong track record of rolling out mass vaccination programmes, especially for diseases like measles and rubella. But getting COVID-19 doses to communities across the country has presented specific challenges.
When COVID-19 vaccines were initially developed and hit the market, wealthy countries bought most of the supplies. That left little for the countries that could not afford them. As a result of this inequity, low priority groups in some countries were getting vaccinated well before high priority and vulnerable groups elsewhere.
In 2021, between June and August, a devastating third COVID-19 wave hit Bangladesh. Although some COVAX vaccines had started to arrive in the country, it took time to widely distribute the doses.
“Thanks to UNICEF and strong partnerships, we could finally mobilize COVAX vaccines in substantial quantities in the last quarter of 2021. We supported the government in the expansion of the cold chain and provided support to get the vaccines into people’s arms,” says Dr Merina Adhikari, who is a health specialist and immunization lead at UNICEF Bangladesh.
To boost the COVID-19 vaccination rate when doses were available, the government launched a mass vaccination campaign to immunize millions of people over the course of several days with the support of UNICEF, WHO and other partners. During the drive, which was held in February 2022, 17 million people were vaccinated.
The second dose was offered in March as part of that campaign and because of these efforts, the vaccination rate in Bangladesh rose significantly in the first few months of this year.
As Bangladesh continues its push to vaccinate millions more people, the country still faces challenges.
There are still many difficult-to-reach populations, including some older, more vulnerable people. Recent data has shown that about 60 per cent of those aged 60 and over have yet to be vaccinated in Bangladesh, with some citing a lack of information about where and when they can get the vaccine. To reach those individuals and other unvaccinated groups, health workers will need to embark on special vaccination drives in these specific communities.
Elsewhere, the pressure on Bangladesh’s overstretched healthcare system is intense. In addition to treating COVID-19 patients and helping to vaccinate communities, a lot of health facilities are still trying to cope with the burden of disease that existed before the pandemic.
As we mark one year since the first COVAX doses landed in Bangladesh, the main challenge ahead is to ensure that the COVID-19 vaccines reach every community.
“UNICEF proudly supports the Bangladesh government’s national vaccination targets, and our focus is on working hand-in-hand with our partners to achieve these goals, leaving no one behind,” reflects Maya Vandenent, who is the chief of health at UNICEF Bangladesh.