Delivering vaccines to remote communities
UNICEF and partners defy logistical challenges and vaccine hesitancy to provide COVID-19 vaccines.
Pigi County, Jonglei State – Cruising along the White Nile, the Sobat River, and the Jonglei Canal for days may sound like a dream experience for many. However, navigating those same waters to deliver vaccines to communities divided by social and political lines, insecurity, and inaccessibility requires constant and heavy negotiation, resilience, and perseverance.
Delivering COVID-19 vaccines to people in remote and neglected parts of Pigi County is already a challenge but countering vaccine hesitancy and misperceptions about the vaccine itself, makes the job even harder.
One challenge began with logistics constraints at the state capital Bor, whereby UNICEF South Sudan deployed a team from its Malakal field office to conduct the intensified COVID-19 Vaccination Optimization (ICVOPT) campaign.
The National Ministry of Health and The State Ministry of Health (Bor) both sent Supervisors for the campaign to support both the County Health personnel and UNICEF teams including health experts and social and behavior change practitioners.
Using speedboats and a team of committed health practitioners, including vaccinators, the team spent many days travelling by along the waterways and sometimes up to nine hours on foot, wading through snake infested floodwaters to reach the targeted communities in rural and scattered locations.
Through the great cooperation from the authorities on the ground, vaccination teams tried to ensure that everyone gets access to vaccines regardless of the distance and the logistical challenges.
The efforts put forward by the different local authorities, traditional leaders, religious leaders, and influential members of the community resulted in over 8,000 people getting their single dose COVID-19 vaccinations in northern parts of Pigi County.
“These COVID-19 vaccines are like any other vaccine. Just like how our children get childhood vaccines which saves them, and this is similar,” said Charles Thon, the acting Payam Administrator for Khorfulus Payam of Pigi County.
He urged vaccinators to ensure that everyone gets vaccinated regardless of their location, adding, “It’s your time to serve our community and make a commitment.”
Fighting misperceptions and countering vaccine hesitancy
Paul Pur is an influential member of his community as he is the Deputy Head Chief. He speaks Arabic and English in addition to his native language. Although he participated in the launch of the campaign in Canal inJuly, Paul returned to Panaam without getting vaccinated and decided not to get it for days.
Paul was among the people in his community who was hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine. UNICEF teams and other local government officials held many discussions with him and other members of the community alongside the continued community mobilization and sensitization through the community mobilizers.
Paul and his community were displaced from their homes in Mareng, the south-eastern part of Pigi County bordering Nyirol County due to the repeated floods and moved to the banks of the Sobat river and in Upper Nile State. They survive on very little with some humanitarian assistance and what the river provides.
Paul is also a teacher and one of the people who helped set up a temporary learning space in Panaam where they teach children under the trees with limited learning and teaching materials. This is in addition to his role as the Deputy Head Chief in his community.
After listening to many of the counsellors and the social mobilizers for almost a week about the benefits of the vaccine to his health and protecting his community, Paul was convinced to take the vaccine.
After Paul got vaccinated, his influence and standing in the community helped many other people in his community realize that the vaccine was safe, and many people turned up to get vaccinated. This area was among the low-performing areas due to hesitancy, but the numbers increased in the last days of the campaign.
After the campaign, Paul said he made the decision to get vaccinated because he need to be an example to his people, especially those from his Payam who settled in Zinki where he got his vaccination.
The Intensified COVID-19 Vaccination Optimization (ICVOPT) campaign is part of support from the World Bank’s Health Project that focuses on COVID-19 vaccine deployment in the country and the provision of essential health services for the most vulnerable populations in two of the most hard-to reach areas – the states of Jonglei and Upper Nile.
UNICEF also recognizes GAVI and the Ministry of Health for their involvement in the deployment and supply of crucial vaccines in South Sudan.