Surge campaigns increase the rates of COVID-19 vaccinations in Sierra Leone
Taking COVID-19 vaccines closer to communities
Masama – Mohamed Kamara, a Community Health Worker (CHW) in Masama village, Karena District, northern Sierra Leone, was sweating profusely after trekking for six miles to a neigbouring village to educate and raise awareness on the need for vaccination against COVID-19. That was just one of his routine trips to prepare communities ahead of the arrival of COVID-19 vaccination teams during the monthly surge campaigns across districts in Sierra Leone.
“We usually go ahead to communities a day before the vaccination teams visit to learn from them and discuss the need to take the COVID-19 vaccines and other routine vaccines so that they are prepared to accept the vaccines and be protected against the disease,” said Mohamed.
There have been widespread rumours and misconceptions about COVID-19 since the first case was reported in Sierra Leone in 2020. People were cynical about it, which led to slow acceptance of the vaccines in their communities and low vaccination rates. However, with the efforts made by all stakeholders, including the generous support from GAVI, the country has vaccinated 94.5 per cent of the target population (12 years old and above).
“At first when we heard about COVID-19 in the country, we just dismissed it and did not take it seriously as we thought it was a ploy to reduce our population,” said Chief Bai Kargbo, the local chief of Masama village.
To build confidence and increase acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccine in seven districts with low vaccination rates, including Karena District, UNICEF in partnership with the Ministry of Health, GAVI and USAID implemented a comprehensive mass vaccination campaign across several communities, including in remote and hard-to-reach areas. This surge initiative led to the deployment of 300 CHWs who actively engaged with 375 under-vaccinated communities around 60 healthcare facilities. The CHWs played critical roles, including identifying unvaccinated persons and addressing concerns about the COVID-19 vaccine, including dispelling rumours and misinformation.
“These CHWs made tremendous efforts to bring community and religious leaders onboard, which in addition to intensive radio campaigns, resulted in the engagement of over 187,492 community members,” said Cindy Thai Thein Nghia, Social and Behaviour Change Specialist at UNICEF Sierra Leone. “This robust approach yielded tangible results, with approximately 37,790 individuals being vaccinated in the 375 under-vaccinated communities; a significant leap from previous results.”
Explaining how they achieved the result, Mohamed said: “We work in collaboration with health workers by raising awareness, and then the health workers administer the vaccines. We also work with
traditional leaders by sensitizing the local chiefs, who in turn appeal to their subjects to take the vaccines since COVID-19 is real and the vaccine is effective and available to protect them from the disease and help save their lives.”
“We also advise them to wash their hands regularly with soap and avoid crowded environments,” he added.
Mohamed further added that CHWs walk an average of seven miles a day, moving from one community to the other, sensitizing and educating people on how to prevent COVID-19 and the need for them to be vaccinated against the disease. They also encourage communities to take their children for routine vaccinations which are available at health facilities.
“We routinely targeted weekly market days (lumas) in communities since they bring large numbers of people together, including traders, buyers, motorbike riders and commercial vehicle drivers,” Mohamed added. “These strategies have proven to be very effective over the past one and half years as we have been able to sensitize more people and vaccination rates have increased significantly.”
Given the tremendous impact of the surge vaccination campaigns, more people are now volunteering to take the COVID-19 vaccine to be protected from the disease. The COVID-19 vaccination has therefore become part of the routine immunization services across the country.