Children’s vaccination campaign gathers momentum in Zimbabwe

Fear, fashion and sport push children to get vaccinated in Zimbabwe’s Zhombe district. At first, they fled to the bushes.

Farai Mutsaka
Vaccination
UNICEFZimbabwe/2022/Timothy Manyange
09 June 2022

Zhombe, Zimbabwe-When it was his turn to get his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, 12-year old Tichaona closed his eyes in anticipation of pain. Within seconds it was over, and painless.

“People were lying to me, there is nothing to fear," he said, referring to rumours spread about the vaccine.

The last time the mobile vaccination team visited St Paul’s Senkwasi Primary School in March, Tichaona and many other students fled to nearby bushes to avoid being vaccinated.

This time he was among the first on the line as nurses administered jabs from the back of a van branded with Health Development Fund (HDF) and Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC) stickers as part of the country’s second blitz of COVID-19 vaccination targeting children aged 12 years and older.

“I was afraid because we were once told it’s for adults only. Some people also told us it is painful and that we would get sick or die if we got vaccinated. Those were all lies,” he said, joining another line to get his vaccination card.

In partnership with the HDF, which is supported by the EU delegation, the governments of UK, Sweden, Ireland and Gavi, the Ministry of Health and Child Care (MoHCC) has been conducting a successful campaign to vaccinate children aged 12 years and above against COVID-19 countrywide.

The campaign has had its share of challenges and drama in Zhombe district in the Midlands province.

During the early days of the first blitz in March, the HDF and MoHCC branded vehicles carrying outreach teams presented a scary sight to some community members, said health officials and teachers.

Some parents pulled their children from class. Other parents kept their children indoors. Health staff and teachers were left in awe at the sight of dozens of children fleeing into bushes at several schools.

Children being vaccinated
UNICEFZimbabwe/2022/Timothy Manyange

“Initially we went through some resistance,” said Nyasha Mwasunda, the District Medical Officer for the largely rural Zhombe district. “Parents were worried that this is something that is not safe. They were not sure why we were now saying the vaccine is safe for children when initially we said they should not be vaccinated.” Religious beliefs were another major hindrance, he said.

The district of 380,000 people has an eligible population of 220,000. It had targeted about 110,000 people for the first blitz but only jabbed 36,000, said Dr. Mwashusha. The ministry and HDF donor partners subsequently intensified awareness campaigns to boost numbers.

Alarmed by the hesitancy, authorities at St Paul’s Senkwasi Primary School called an urgent meeting of parents to discuss the concerns, assure them of vaccine safety and emphasize the importance of getting vaccinated.

“Luckily, we have parents at the school who are also village health workers, one of them is part of the School Development Committee. They helped us a lot in changing the attitudes of people,” said Shumirai Manake, the school deputy head.

As a result, previously hesitant parents are now constantly nagging health personnel and school staff about the timetables for the children’s vaccination outreach programme, said health authorities.

“As we speak we are really moving. I think this time around we are going to surpass the numbers that we had in the first blitz,” said Mwashusha, the DMO. “Even after the second blitz, vaccinations will continue for children who would have been left out. We have partners who are supporting us in terms of resources for the activities beyond the blitz,” he said.

Smiling parent and child
UNICEFZimbabwe/2022/Timothy Manyange

Eligible children in school uniforms lined up to receive their first and second doses at various schools in the district recently. Some underage pupils tried to sneak in, but were told to wait until they grew older.

Reasons for the changing attitudes vary. Some children said they resented the prolonged lockdown-induced school closures and hope vaccination will keep schools open.  Others were struck by fear after seeing their close ones, including their teachers, fall sick. Another group sees the vaccination card as a fashion symbol, something to brag about to their peers.

Parents have also begun allowing their children to be vaccinated after receiving assurances of safety and also after seeing other community members embrace the vaccine.

And then there are those such as Tichaona, who view vaccination as a gateway to enjoying their favorite sports safely. From being an objector, he is now trying to convince other children to get vaccinated in hopes that higher numbers would boost the chances of being allowed back into the sports field.

 

“I miss soccer and the inter-school competitions. Vaccination is the answer, we can all play knowing we are safe,” he said.