80 per cent of refugees to be vaccinated in third accelerated COVID-19 vaccination campaign

The vaccination campaign under the humanitarian buffer targets refugees and host communities

Alex Taremwa
Health worker heading out for vaccinatiomn
© UNICEF/UN0660753/Rutherford
27 June 2022

Uganda is home to more than 1.5 million refugees, according to 2022 data from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM). More than 50 per cent of the refugee population in several settlements have not yet received their first COVID-19 jab, while about 20 per cent have received the first shot but have yet to complete the dose.

In border districts such as Adjumani, which boasts 19 refugee settlements, only 28 per cent of their 245,289 refugees had received their first jab compared to 50 per cent of the nationals.

As a result, UNICEF, in partnership with the Ministry of Health with funding from the Swiss Government and the European Commission, launched  an accelerated mass vaccination exercise in 13 districts across Uganda on 13 June, 2022. The districts include Madi-Okollo, Obongi, Adjumani, Kiryandongo, Isingiro, Kyegegwa, Kamwenge, among others. 

Accelerated vaccination
© UNICEF/UN0660760/Rutherford
© UNICEF/UN0660767/Rutherford

The accelerated COVID-19 vaccination for refugees and host communities has been made possible under the global COVAX Humanitarian Buffer, a mechanism established within the COVAX Facility to act as a measure of ‘last resort’ to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccines for high-risk and vulnerable populations in humanitarian settings. The Humanitarian Buffer is only to be used where there are unavoidable gaps in coverage in national vaccination plans and micro-plans, despite advocacy efforts.

Besides refugees and host communities, the accelerated COVID-19 mass vaccination campaign also reached children from 12-17 years. All these had their guardians and parents consent to the vaccination.

According to Dr. Patrick Banura, the Immunization Officer at UNICEF Uganda, some refugees had missed out on earlier vaccination campaigns due to vaccine hesitancy, while others could not access the vaccines.

“We have employed several techniques to ensure that the very last person has access to the vaccine. We are doing community mobilization through radio talk shows. We have trained health workers to conduct home visits and ensure that vulnerable groups such as the elderly, pregnant mothers and people living with disabilities are catered for,"

Banura said.

With the vaccines now available at several designated health centres, each of the 13 selected districts has a target to vaccinate at least 80 per cent of their eligible population to create hard immunity and reduce the chance of a fast COVID-19 transmission.

Outreach posts making an impact

On the ground, the use of outreach posts has significantly improved the community’s uptake of the vaccination exercise.

In Adjumani District, 66 outreach posts staffed by two health workers, one refugee welfare officer, and two village health team (VHT) members have been created across all refugee settlements. Obongi District’s Palorinya Refugee Settlement also has 44 outreach posts covering four zones.

At one of the outreach posts in Mirieyi Refugee Settlement, the health worker, Stanley Karamira, said more than 100 people turned up for vaccination on the first day compared to when Ofua Health Centre III was the nearest vaccination point.

He attributes this uptake to reduced distances to access the service, radio talk shows and posters distributed in local languages across the settlement that demystify people's myths about vaccines.

Girls vaccinated against COVID-19
© UNICEF/UN0660754/Rutherford
Health workers preparing for vaccination exercise
© UNICEF/UN0660787/Rutherford

Overcoming fear

Ajak Reech Nyibol is eight months pregnant and received her shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the convenience of her home.

“I know the hospital will be full when I go to give birth, and without the vaccine, I am at a higher risk of getting the coronavirus, further putting my baby in danger. Our VHT told us that the vaccine is safe for pregnant women because she also took it when she was pregnant and gave birth to a healthy baby. That helped me overcome my fear,” she said.

Robina Waju, 16, is a Primary Five pupil at Luru Primary School in Palorinya Refugee Settlement. She received a Pfizer shot at Luru Village on 15 June 2022. Her decision was influenced by her parents, who had received their vaccination months earlier.

“I was afraid that if I took the vaccine, I might not get pregnant in the future, but my parents assured me that I would be safe because they both had taken the jab and remained healthy. This motivated me to get the vaccine to protect myself and my friends,” Waju said.

Waju appeals to fellow pupils, especially those below 18 years, to get vaccinated so that schools do not get closed again, which will cost them more time, hindering their academic progress.