Kasungu’s winning ways against COVID-19
No guard let down on COVID-19 vaccinations
Since Malawi received COVID-19 vaccines in 2021, Kasungu district has administered 773,819 vaccine doses, and 508,591 people are fully vaccinated.
Stanley Madisi is one of the people who have received two doses of the vaccine as well as a booster shot.
"I got the vaccine because I'm aware of the benefits of vaccination in protecting people from diseases. For instance, children are protected from diseases such as measles. In the past, we had instances where schools in my home village would close due to measles outbreaks, all because we didn't have vaccines. But measles is not as scary as before, which convinced me that vaccines are important," says the 46-year father of four.
Madisi is diabetic, and getting the vaccine was even more important since people with underlying factors are at great risk of contracting and getting COVID-19.
Baziwell Maliseni, the Deputy EPI Coordinator for Kasungu District Health Office (DHO), says the district has emerged from a dark past, and the fascinating vaccination figures are a testament to the strategies implemented to render COVID-19 a footnote to history, even if a tragic one.
"The situation was bad in 2020 when COVID-19 had just started. We had so many admissions in the district health facilities. Most were discharged, but some people died," he says.
Outside the major cities of Blantyre, Zomba, Lilongwe, and Mzuzu (as part of Mzimba), no district bore the brunt of the coronavirus more than Kasungu, which has recorded 2,418 cumulative confirmed cases as 101 coronavirus-related deaths.
"We have seen an improvement in hospital admissions since 2021 when we started vaccinating people," he says.
He attributes the success story to recruiting freelance health workers and integrating COVID-19 vaccination into routine primary healthcare activities such as antenatal, ART, and NCD clinics.
With funding from USAID, since August 2022, UNICEF has facilitated the recruitment of freelance health workers, which addresses the chronic problem of understaffing among community health workers such as health surveillance assistants (HSAs), community health nurses, and community midwives.
"The freelance health workers are assisting in providing health services such as vaccinating people with the COVID-19 vaccine. Most HSAs are busy because we have several vaccination campaigns targeting children. This means that not enough time is dedicated to COVID-19 vaccination. However, the recruitment of the health workers means the HSAs can devote their time to the campaigns and other primary health services," Maliseni says.
Kasungu DHO has 79 freelance health workers who UNICEF facilitates; four have been deployed at the district hospital, and they move between non-communicable diseases (NCD), ART, and antenatal clinics while the rest work in the communities.
Maliseni explains that the freelancers are trained health professionals such as nurses, environmental health workers, and community midwives. Still, before deployment, they undergo specialised training in administering COVID-19 vaccines and counselling.
One such freelancer is Wongani Nyirenda, who holds a bachelor's degree in public health and has previously volunteered as an environmental health officer. Their remit, he says, involves COVID-19 vaccinations and health education as well as vaccine cold chain management.
Nyirenda says due to entrenched myths and beliefs, they have their work cut out for convincing people, especially those with comorbidities such as HIV and NCDs like cancer, diabetes, and hypertension, to take the COVID-19 vaccines.
"Behavioural change is gradual; it takes time with continuous and intensive messages. So we believe if we educate them and they understand why they are getting vaccinated, they will willingly accept the vaccine," he says.
COVID-19 has been associated with significant risks for people with underlying factors such as HIV and AIDS and non-communicable diseases like cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes because these pre-existing conditions weaken the immune system, which makes them more susceptible to infections.
"Such people are vulnerable to many diseases because they have low immunity. So when they are not vaccinated, they are also vulnerable to COVID-19 as a disease itself. So when they get the vaccine, we are safeguarding their lives from getting the disease COVID-19," he says.
While the worst excesses of Covid-19 might be behind us, the infectious disease remains a threat. Malawi's cumulative cases stand at 88,736 as of May 2023.