Volunteers help vaccinate hard-to-reach groups

Volunteers from ethnic minorities were supported by the Government and UNICEF to promote vaccination in their communities

Dr. Ponlok LENG
© UNICEF Cambodia/2021
UNICEF Cambodia/2021
28 September 2021

One of the reasons the Royal Government of Cambodia has been so successful in vaccinating so much of its population (already 89% of all adults have been fully vaccinated) is that it has worked hard to include groups who are typically harder to reach. One such group is people from indigenous ethnic minorities.

Within days of COVID first arriving in Cambodia, UNICEF began supporting the Ministry of Health with its public health response, from original communications on how to take precautions through to the vaccination roll-out. It has supported COVID-19 vaccination operations in the areas of logistics, planning, risk communication and community engagement, with generous support from the Czech Republic. That community engagement has specifically targeted indigenous ethnic minorities.

As well as providing communication materials in the most widely spoken minority languages, the key to engaging this group has been a strong collaboration with local authorities, who have worked to build a network of community workers and volunteers based in their communities. At 20 years old, village assistant Sev Sen is a particularly young volunteer, but has done an extraordinary job in supporting vaccination efforts in Ya Tong commune in the remote Ratanakiri region of Cambodia.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2021
UNICEF Cambodia/2021

“I really enjoy my role as a village assistant for the Ya Tong commune council because I have the opportunity to help people in my community,” says Ms. Sen, who was appointed on the 1st of January of this year. She belongs to the Jarai indigenous ethnic group. “In particular, I support people to prevent COVID-19 transmission and mobilise people to be vaccinated."

Ms. Sen and the Commune Chief were first trained in how to help administrate the vaccine roll-out through training provided by the Ratanakiri Provincial Health Department, supported by guidelines developed by UNICEF.

“The national COVID-19 vaccination roll-out has been very successful so far, making Cambodia one of the most vaccinated countries in the region and globally. A critical part of this campaign has been the way Government has continued to adapt its vaccination delivery and outreach strategy to ensure hard to reach communities are included, from strong community engagement to identify vulnerable populations, to tailoring communication to ethnic minority languages”, says Hedy Ip, Chief of Health and Nutrition, UNICEF Cambodia.

Once she had been trained, Ms. Sen arranged a meeting in her village to brief residents in the Jarai language on the imminent arrival of vaccines. The first meeting was difficult, and Ms. Sen faced a lot of resistance. “In that first meeting, only about half of the village wanted to volunteer for the vaccine, the other half seemed reluctant to accept that the vaccines could benefit them.”

Ms. Sen listened carefully to the concerns raised and met with the village chief and village elders. They decided to hold a second meeting and draw more heavily on communication materials provided by UNICEF. These materials addressed safety concerns over vaccines, tackled misinformation, and informed people of benefits and side effects. They also included information on how to stay safe and protect others, before and after receiving a vaccine.

© UNICEF Cambodia/2021
UNICEF Cambodia/2021

The second meeting was more successful and this time 90% of the villagers decided they wanted to get the vaccine. Ms. Sen was proud of the impact of her work; "After villagers showed their commitment by volunteering to be vaccinated against COVID-19, I started to register everyone who was eligible and submitted the list to the Commune Chief.”

The vaccines arrived in batches between 15th August and 16th September 2021. Ms. Sen repeatedly drove a round trip of 40 kilometres on her motorbike to collect essential materials, despite having to drive on rough roads made muddy by rainy season. She didn’t receive any incentives or compensation for her work:  "I never think of any gain from my time spent supporting the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. No one forces me to do these tasks, but I want to ensure all the people in my village get vaccinated and are protected.”

During the vaccination days, Ms. Sen was in a constant blur of activity, either helping people to access the vaccination sites, providing villagers with up to date information, helping those whose documentation was incomplete, or calling out when it was in their turn in both the Jarai and Khmer languages. She organised a waiting area which followed precautions such as mask wearing and distancing, and also supported the vaccination team to prepare the sites each day so that they were hygienic and safe.

The people who needed most attention tended to be the elderly, who often had health conditions or were on special diets for medical purposes. Older people were especially concerned about side effects, so Ms. Sen worked hard to reassure them and provide them with accurate information on what the side effects might be and what to do if they did experience them.

Looking back, Ms. Sen is really proud of how much she achieved with the support of other members of the commune council. Only two people chose not to be vaccinated in the end, although a few others were advised not to be vaccinated for medical reasons. “I’m very thankful to my family, who encouraged me to volunteer to support​ this campaign because it was so important. I also feel grateful to the commune authorities and the village chief for encouraging me, the Government and UNICEF for making the vaccinations possible, and the people in the village for listening to my advice and protecting themselves and each other.”