COVID vaccination campaigns reach the most vulnerable
Outreach campaigns across vulnerable communities aim to monitor how many are still unvaccinated and mobilise people to get themselves protected against COVID
8 August 2022, Kouk Roka commune, Prek Pnov district, Phnom Penh – In June 2021, shortly after receiving her first COVID-19 vaccination, 56-year-old Kao Touch tested positive for the disease. Her doctor had told her at the time that once she recovered, because of the antibodies in her system, she should wait six months before getting the second dose.
More than a year later, only now has she decided that she is ready to get another shot.
“I almost died,” she says of her experience of being infected with COVID. “I didn’t think I would live. I was getting food through a tube.”
Already suffering from hypertension, the illness also left her feeling short of breath for months after being discharged from the wedding and exhibition space that had been turned into a treatment facility during the height of the pandemic, when hospitals and healthcare facilities in Phnom Penh were overwhelmed with COVID patients.
“I decided not to get another vaccine because I was worried about my health,” she says. “I have so many health issues. I was afraid.”
Touch lives in Andong village on the outskirts of the capital, which is one of 151 urban poor communities in Phnom Penh. Making up an estimated quarter of the capital’s population, these informal settlements have sprung up in the last decade as a result of the increasing number of migrants moving to find low-income work, and often lack access to basic services and amenities such as clean water, sanitation, rubbish collection, toilets, electricity and healthcare.
While Cambodia remains one of the top vaccinated countries in the world for COVID-19, with more than 9.6 million adults aged 18 and above fully vaccinated, which is almost the entire adult population, there are still pockets of people who have either missed their second dose or have not received any vaccine at all.
Touch’s decision to finally take another shot is largely due to the committed ongoing efforts of the local authorities, healthcare providers and community volunteer groups in collaboration with the district and provincial government, with support from UNICEF, to address the remaining gaps in service delivery for the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach communities, including the urban poor. Door-to-door outreach campaigns aim to record how many people are still unvaccinated, understand the remaining barriers to vaccine access and mobilise the community to get themselves protected against COVID.
Out of the nine members of her household, with the exception of two three-year-old grandchildren, Touch says she is the only one not fully vaccinated. “I decided to get the vaccine to protect myself,” she says. “My family all got vaccinated so that is not my worry. My worry is myself.”
Ben San, the focal point for women and children in Kouk Roka Sangkat, says the latest campaign, which finished only a few weeks ago, targeted ten poor communities across the sangkat. It’s a coordinated effort between village chiefs, village health support groups (VHSGs) and health centres to go village-by-village and house-by-house to make official records on how many vaccines each person has received, numbers which are then fed to the district level and then to the capital level. Across the ten urban poor communities, they recorded almost 200 people who had not received any vaccine at all, just less than 350 without a second dose and around 550 without a booster shot.
“We have many means to mobilise people to get the vaccination,” she says. “We announced through tuk tuk that people who have no vaccination should come get vaccinated at the health centre. If they have no transportation, we will arrange transportation for those people.”
“We still find that people with chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure or hypertension, as well as elderly people, are not willing,” she adds. “They are still scared. The people living in the urban poor community, their knowledge is very limited. Even if we run campaigns to educate them, their knowledge is still very low.”
She receives support through the Women and Children’s Consultative Committee (WCCC) to target vulnerable groups like pregnant women to get them to understand that vaccines are safe and will not harm their child.
“Before the mobilisation, there were many people who were not vaccinated. Later on, even the pregnant women got vaccinated. So many people came.”
Sorya and her colleague Poch Maopy agree that the campaign was a success. They said as a result of their efforts they managed to convince between 30 and 40 people to receive anywhere between their first and fourth dose. Much of what they do is education aimed towards pregnant women and those who believe they are too sick, in which case they encourage them to seek a consultation from the health centre before making any decisions. They also took vaccines to a construction site to reach the workers there.
As a part of the broader comprehensive work to ensure equitable, safe and effective vaccination in Cambodia, UNICEF supported by DFAT and USAID, works closely with the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation and other partners to address gaps in service delivery and COVID vaccine access for the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach communities. This includes mitigating the potential risk related to misinformation and delayed decision making through strengthening advocacy and communication activities, supporting priority groups in remote and vulnerable communities to access vaccination sites through mobilisation and outreach, as well as local measures to improve and facilitate access.
UNICEF also provides funds and technical assistance for planning, coordination and monitoring support, including collaboration with sub-national level administration such as committees like the WCCC to ensure commitment and participation across all levels of government and leadership at the local level to address issues relating to children, women and vulnerable groups.
“We closely monitor the Sangkat here in Phnom Penh as well as the health centre in the Sangkat so they can get information directly from the local authority,” says H.E. Keo Rathdara, the chief of the WCCC in Phnom Penh. “To me, this campaign was a big success because the working team tried very hard, wholeheartedly, to work in this area. It’s important to work together with the government in order to mobilise people to get vaccinated and it’s equally important to enhance the health and well-being of people in Cambodia, in particular vulnerable groups like women, children and elderly.”
In reflecting upon the vaccine roll-out, she commends the comprehensive strategy to reach all groups across Phnom Penh and the country, from wide-reaching social media posts to tailored community tuk tuk announcements and everything in between. For this latest campaign, across the four districts and 15 communes they were targeting, they found 748 people who had not been vaccinated at all and 880 who had missed the second dose, a small percentage considering the total population of 29,000. Yet she says that even if there is no immediate health threat in the country, there is still work to be done to remind people to not let their guard down and to keep up their booster shots.
“I am confident that people are quite well aware of how to protect themselve, including women, children and vulnerable groups as well. But we will continue to raise awareness of the importance of protection.”
Ben, who now feels she is mentally prepared to get her next jab, is thankful for that.
“The team that came here, they worked very hard to mobilise people to get the vaccine, to help the community,” she says. “I am happy that they came.”