Vaccination efforts pave the way for a normal life in Battambang
How well-informed frontline staff and consistent community outreach are keeping Cambodian lives and livelihoods well-protected
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Wednesday, 29 December 2021 – 23-year-old Ms Pheak Nary sits in an evenly spaced crowd of fifty people at the Bavel Referral Hospital in western Battambang province. With her hands posed on her pregnant belly, she explains, “I didn’t plan on getting a booster shot today; I was just bringing my cousin for his, but the healthcare staff explained that it’s the best protection for me and my baby.”
Today Nary is happy to have extended protection against COVID-19. However, she’s had an up and down journey with COVID vaccines and her pregnancy. And she’s not alone. For pregnant women in Cambodia and around the globe, the decision to get vaccinated has not been straightforward.
Back in June, when Nary received her first vaccination doses, she didn’t yet know she was pregnant. Shortly after her second dose, she discovered she was pregnant and immediately felt scared for her baby. “I was worried that my child might not develop properly”, she said.
She immediately consulted her midwife who told her that they could confirm all was well at the four-month mark in her pregnancy. At this point, her growing baby would be big enough for an ultrasound to clearly show physical development and to test the amniotic fluid for any abnormalities. She counted the days until that antenatal visit. "As soon as the midwife said my baby was thriving, my worry and anxiety disappeared. I was so relieved,” Nary shared.
Mr Liv Sal is Nary’s cousin. He asked her for a ride to get his booster dose because he has very poor eyesight and cannot drive a motorbike himself. Sal learned about the availability of today’s booster shots and his earlier doses from loudspeaker announcements in his village. Each time it’s been his turn, he has been eager to come in. “Before I was vaccinated, I was scared to leave the house. I couldn’t go out to sell my lettuce, spinach and mustard greens at the market," Sal explained. “When I heard the announcement that vaccines were available, I was ready to go. It’s so wonderful to feel safe and return to my work.”
In Nary and Sal’s village, many livelihoods depend on small-scale agriculture and seasonal work in Thailand. Before COVID, Nary earned money as a cook for wedding celebrations and supplemented that seasonal income with small-scale rice farming. COVID-19 put a stop to large gatherings like weddings and while it hasn’t stopped the ability to grow crops, intermittent market closures and lockdowns have made that income inconsistent. Nary explained further, “The price of crops plunged, while the cost of fertilizers increased. On top of that, the travel restriction cut off work opportunities in Thailand that we would normally use to supplement our income.”
When bringing Sal to receive his booster dose, a midwife at the hospital advised Nary to get hers. She initially hesitated because of the worry and stress she went through before but changed her mind when she learned that global guidance had changed.
"I am happy to add another layer of protection from COVID for myself and my baby.” Nary encourages all pregnant women who aren’t vaccinated yet to get the jab today, adding “Don’t be afraid. From my own experience, I know it’s safe!”
UNICEF has been working with the Ministry of Health to ensure that healthcare workers nationwide have the most up-to-date information throughout the pandemic. While the most recent focus has been on letting pregnant mothers know it’s safe to get vaccinated against COVID-19, UNICEF and partners aim to reach every Cambodian with vaccinations and accurate information on the pandemic. These efforts have seen vulnerable populations fully vaccinated, regaining access to their livelihoods, and equipped with behaviours to stay safe. Generous support from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) reinforces this comprehensive work for equitable, safe, and effective vaccination in Cambodia.
Ms Chenda Meas is a midwife and a member of the vaccination task force at Bevel referral hospital in Battambang province, where Nary and Sal were vaccinated. She explained how the recommendations for expectant mothers have changed since the vaccination roll-out began. "At first, following global guidance and the Ministry of Health, we advised pregnant women not to get vaccinated. As soon as scientific studies confirmed it was safe, we started telling our patients that the protection of vaccines outweighs the risk of infection and severe illness for them and their unborn children.”
Ms Chenda has been happy to see so many people from her community coming in for vaccination. She is optimistic that the remaining 10 per cent in her community who are not yet vaccinated will show up soon. As efforts to reach the unvaccinated continue nationwide, she will continue to do her part to share COVID safety information with every patient she talks to.
Nary is grateful for the good health that vaccination has helped ensure, but even further, shared “Vaccination not only protects your life but also your livelihood. Many things are coming back to normal thanks to the high vaccination rates. I look forward to a wedding season with no restrictions and the regular money that means for my family. Until this pandemic is finally over, I hope that the government and donors will continue to support free vaccinations to those who otherwise can’t afford it. Everyone being vaccinated is the only thing that will keep us all safe and earning enough to keep our families healthy.”