Social mobilizers rally communities to increase demand for COVID-19 vaccines
World Bank funded programme helps increase demand for vaccines and provides basic health services for mothers and children in the Upper Nile State.
Unfazed by the heat of the glaring sun, 22-year-old Sara Yai walks through the sun-baked yards and dusty fields, calling out to children playing to ask about their mother's whereabouts. She lifts the megaphone to her lips and her voice is amplified above the sounds of barking dogs and errant chickens.
“This is a reminder to get your COVID-19 vaccine at the Primary Health Care Centre. It is completely safe for mothers and fathers,” she says, sounding a little authoritative.
Sara is a social mobilizer who lives in Upper Nile State; it has some of the lowest indicators for child and maternal mortality, and even lower immunization rates than the national average.
Today, Sara is accompanied by Awut Thon, 26, another social mobilizer. They also carry Information Education and Communication materials, like pictorials that promote antenatal care for pregnant women.
After learning from the children that their mother is home, they enter the compound of Anyang Machar, 46, a mother of six. Anyang is a little nervous about the two young women with the megaphone and the blue vests who have shown up at her house.
“We are from the Ministry of Health and we are here to check on whether you have heard about the free COVID-19 vaccine that you can receive at the health centre nearby,” says Sara reassuringly.
Anyang hesitates and then smiles shyly, before replying that she has heard of the COVID-19 vaccine, but that she hasn’t gotten immunized yet.
Sara and Awut inform her that it is a good idea to get vaccinated because then she would not contract the virus if she met someone who was positive; and that once vaccinated, she would not develop symptoms, which for some can be life-threatening.
After a few more minutes of their cajoling, Anyang nods and says that she will think about it and talk to her husband and go to the Primary Health Care Centre - which is a 30-minute walk from her home.
“In the beginning, people in our community thought that COVID-19 was not a disease they should worry about. But it is our job to inform them and to educate them it is a dangerous disease, and the vaccine provides them immunity,” says Sara.
Social mobilizers like Sara and Awut are one of the pillars of the health system in the rural and hard to reach areas of South Sudan. Paid only a small stipend, it is their dedication and effort that will help to turn the tide and improve maternal and child health indicators in these regions.
“We are not medical workers, but at least we can inform our neighbours and other mothers to keep themselves safe by getting themselves and their children immunized and to go to the health centre,” says Sara.
The joint programme of the Ministry of Health, the World Bank and UNICEF support a vast array of health services in Upper Nile and Jonglei States. This includes the provision of medicines, nutritional supplies, medical equipment for the hospitals and health care centres, and training health workers including midwives and nurses on raising awareness and preventing HIV and Gender-Based Violence in their communities.
As the Ministry of Health leads, UNICEF facilitates COVID-19 vaccination operations, in partnership with the World Bank, through implementing partners like the European Union’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) and the European Union / Intergovernmental Authority on Development (EU/IGAD). Thanks to the COVAX facility and GAVI for the vaccines.