Going an extra mile to tackle low vaccine coverage in Khartoum state

How UNICEF and partners are planning to reach all with the vaccine through special interventions

By Proscovia Nakibuuka Mbonye
COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, UNICEF, COVID-19 vaccination in Sudan, vaccination campaign, COVID-19 vaccines, COVAX vaccines
UNICEF Sudan/2021
26 April 2021

Building confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines in order for the public to accept them remains a UNICEF priority for the vaccination campaign, now in its sixth week.

Despite the numerous interventions planned and implemented by the Federal Ministry of Health with support from State Ministry of Health and partners like UNICEF, World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Bank, to reach eligible persons with the vaccine, a few localities continue to register low vaccine uptake compared to the target populations especially among the elderly and those with illnesses. But UNICEF will not leave anyone behind.

With UNICEF support, the localities have been mapped out and special interventions organized to reach the unreached with the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines. The interventions include re-engagement of vaccine trust building committees, use of megaphones to reach the last person and mobile vans. 

In Khartoum state, where the campaign started, three localities of Ombada, Sharg-e-nile, Jabal Aulia, have registered low performance since the rollout.

During a visit to Sharg-e-nile locality headquarters, a group of about twenty people meet to discuss avenues on how to increase the vaccination coverage and challenges related to low vaccine uptake. The participants include women, men, and religious leaders, purposely selected because they are trusted members of the community. We later learn they are members of the vaccine trust building committee of Sharg-e-nile locality. 

COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, UNICEF, COVID-19 vaccination in Sudan, vaccination campaign, COVID-19 vaccines, COVAX vaccines
UNICEF Sudan/2021

They are gathered for an in-depth orientation by health promotion experts from the Federal Ministry of Health and UNICEF. Their job may seem simple but also complex at the same time and their work cut out for them – mobilizing communities to accept the vaccine, address refusals and hesitancy, among other roles.

But they won’t perform their duties without facts, hence the orientation session. Through a series of discussions, the committee members are provided with critical information they need to effectively perform the tasks at hand. They will notify the public about the vaccine availability in the country and that it is safe, effective, and free. Additionally, they will sensitize them about the number of doses one requires; eligible populations being targeted and why; and the vaccination centres close to them. 

By the end of the session, the members are clear about what is expected of them before they set individual targets. But this will not be the last session they will have with the experts. Follow up sessions to discuss progress and challenges led by the locality health promotion team will be organized and held.

The religious leaders, also known as Imams, are tasked to share the messages as well as convince their followers to get vaccinated, before or after prayers, while calling for prayers, especially during the holy month of Ramadan. 

One member who runs a youth club with more than 50 young people pledged to engage the club members as influencers to convince elders within their families to take the vaccine. He was provided with posters for the club premises to further disseminate messages to a wider audience.

Building trust among the committee members

If the trust building committee members are not convinced about the vaccine, convincing the public to get vaccinated will be a challenge. To address their queries and misconceptions, the Ministry of Health and UNICEF experts provided detailed information about the vaccine and its efficacy and the importance of the vaccination campaign. Those that were eligible and had not taken the vaccine yet, were urged to do so if they were to act as vaccine ambassadors. 

COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, UNICEF, COVID-19 vaccination in Sudan, vaccination campaign, COVID-19 vaccines, COVAX vaccines
UNICEF Sudan/2021

To further strengthen the messaging, Sehrish Ali, the UNICEF Communication for Development Specialist who had received the vaccine the day before shared her experience before showing them her vaccination card. To which they clapped. 

Speaking to committee members, Sehrish applauded them for accepting to take on this important role and highlighted the importance of their contribution towards the vaccination campaign. “The vaccine is our only hope! Without your support, we won’t reach everyone with the vaccine,” she stressed. 

Commitments from members

Going forward, the members committed to creating a WhatsApp group, a commonly used medium of communication, to share critical information amongst themselves and feedback from the community including hesitancy and refusal cases; use existing networks to reach and convince eligible populations; start with their immediate family members before reaching out to the wider community and utilize social media to share messages with their networks

COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, UNICEF, COVID-19 vaccination in Sudan, vaccination campaign, COVID-19 vaccines, COVAX vaccines
UNICEF Sudan/2021

Equipped with the right information, the ambassadors were sent out to mobilize the communities within their catchment areas. The same activities are being organized in the other two localities (Ombada, and Jabal Aulia) in Khartoum state, with low vaccine performance to ensure that all stumbling blocks barring us to reach the eligible population are addressed. As the different groups go about their tasks, they remain focused with a common goal, ensuring the public is vaccinated against COVID-19 to protect them and their families from the virus.