More people are now taking COVID-19 vaccines in Sierra Leone due to effective social mobilization

An effort to increase COVID-19 vaccine coverage

Issa Davies
A man talks on a megaphone in a rural community in Sierra Leone
27 October 2021

Bo, Sierra Leone – With a megaphone in one hand and a pile of posters with messages of COVID-19 in the other, Joseph Jabati, a COVID-19 social mobilization worker, perambulated energetically the length and breadth of Salina Community, a small settlement in Bo, southern Sierra Leone.

As he moved from stall to stall in the market area, his megaphone bellowed the sound of a siren to attract people’s attention, followed by messages encouraging people to go to the vaccination point that has been temporarily set up in the community to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Good day my people! Please go to the Centenary Secondary School compound to take your COVID-19 vaccine”, he shouted through the megaphone. “The vaccines are safe, and they will help protect you from getting the corona virus.”

Sierra Leone has recorded over 6,983 cases of COVID-19 with 123 deaths since the first case of the pandemic was reported in March 2021. UNICEF has facilitated the cumulative shipments and deliveries of 2,308,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX facility and the AU, that have been donated by the Governments of the United States of America, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, France and China. These include Astra Zeneca, Sinopharm, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines.

There was widespread mistrust and apprehension among many residents in Sierra Leone about the vaccines when they first landed in the country. Many people believed that it was not safe to take the vaccines, people thought they would either die from taking them or develop complications that would affect their health in the future. This mistrust and hesitancy contributed to the slow and low intake of these life-saving vaccines during the initial stages.

“The rumours and fears about the vaccines were rampant among many people in several communities in my locality to the point that I became confused and started having doubts on the credibility of the people working on COVID-19 in the country and the efficacy of these vaccines,” Joseph succinctly puts it.

To dispel these fears, misgivings and rumours which hinder the vaccination drive, UNICEF worked with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation and Civil Society Organisations to among other things, train social mobilisers and empower them to take behaviour change messages to communities. The social mobilisers were trained to actively build people’s trust to increase acceptance of the vaccines.

“Effective social mobilization strategies play a critical role in getting community buy-in and acceptance in vaccination campaigns and help community members to easily access vaccines, especially during abnormal times and emergency periods. The COVID-19 vaccines have proven to be a good test case,” said Cindy Thai Thein Nghia, UNICEF’s Communication for Development Specialist.

A man talks on a megaphone in a rural community in Sierra Leone
Joseph Jabati, a social mobilizer in Bo, takes the COVID-19 vaccine sensitization engagement to teenagers who are above the age of 18 in a senior secondary school.

“The training opened my eyes to the reality of the COVID-19 situation and the prevention protocols that go with it,” Joseph added. I immediately took my vaccine and was offered a vaccination card, and that prepared me for the work ahead.”

As Joseph joins a team of vaccination staff which includes health workers and social mobilisers to go to various communities to engage the people and encourage them to take the COVID-19 vaccines, he carries his vaccination card with him, which he neatly keeps in a small bag swung around his shoulder.

“At first, it was difficult to convince people to take the vaccines giving all the misgivings that go with it but now, it is becoming easier and enjoyable everyday talking with people,” he continued. “A lot of people are now listening to me and are coming forward voluntarily to take the vaccines.”

Salay Momoh, a resident in Joseph’s community said she and her neighbours willingly came forward to take the vaccines as the people who are administering the vaccines are their normal health workers and social mobilisers working in their local health centres.

“At first, we thought strangers will be administering the vaccines and we had doubts about it. But now, we feel comfortable that people like Joseph who is one of us and whom we see and interact with every day in our community are the ones working on the vaccination activities,” said a relieved Salay as she unfolded her sleeve on the upper left arm to receive her first jab.

“Seeing is believing! One of the main game changers in the vaccination drive is that community people feel relieved when they see those who have taken the vaccines keeping healthy and going about their normal businesses several weeks after they had received their jabs,” said a confident looking Joseph. “And now we are even rolling out the vaccination activities to teenagers who are above the age of 18 in senior secondary schools.”

This, of course, helped greatly in changing their mindsets which led to a kind of rush in many communities to take the vaccines,” he concluded as he packed his stuff to go home after a hard day’s work.