Youth campaigners use peer support to encourage youths to accept COVID-19 & cervical cancer vaccines

In Zimbabwe’s Chimanimani district, youths trust their own as the country promotes vaccines for children and young people. Village Health Workers are turning to peer support to encourage youths to engage fellow youths to beat vaccine hesitancy, as well as

UNICEF
Theresa Tsakatsa 18 years, Championing vaccination for youths in  Chimanimani District
UNICEF/2021
27 January 2022

Chimanimani, Zimbabwe - When 18-year-old Theresa Tsakatsa’s parents received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Zimbabwe’s eastern district of Chimanimani last year, they continued to encourage her to get the jab for weeks. “It became a chorus,” she said. She held them off. “I just wasn’t sure about it,” she said.

Then two of her friends came to school proudly brandishing their COVID-19 vaccination cards and she also talked to Patience Kundhlande – a 35-year-old village health worker for the past decade – who credits the introduction of the World Bank funded, Zimbabwe Idai Recovery Project (ZIRP) in 2019 for boosting her skills and reach. Tsakatsa’s interactions with Kundhlande became a game changer.

“My attitude changed. I immediately got vaccinated for COVID-19,”

Theresa Tsakatsa’s

“My attitude changed. I immediately got vaccinated for COVID-19,” she said, highlighting how she only changed her mind because the message was coming from people of her generation.

 “It wasn’t appealing to me when the message came from my parents. I would brush it aside as their usual pressure to make me do things that they want. But I fell in love with the message when it came from fellow young people, I call her (Patience) sisi Patie, she is young she knows our language,” she said.

In November 2021, the Government announced that teenagers aged 16 and 17 could now get vaccinated against COVID-19. But vaccine hesitancy driven by religious values and norms and general disinformation could be a barrier in a country where campaigners had challenges to convince many adults to take the jab.

The Southern African country also introduced the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine to protect them from cervical cancer into its routine immunisation programme in 2018 through the support of UNICEF and the Health Development Fund – financed by . The rollout aims to reach over 800,000 girls aged between 10-14 years old. Over a thousand women in Zimbabwe die from the disease every year, making it the most common cause of cancer in women in the country. Vaccine hesitancy could worsen the situation, warn campaigners.

In Chimanimani district – a scenic mountainous region hosting a mix of urban sprawl and rural farmland – youths are taking the lead in convincing their hesitant peers about the advantages of taking COVID-19 and HPV vaccines, thanks to the capacity building initiatives under ZIRP.

Zimbabwe has a large young population. According to the United Nations Population Fund, more than 60 percent of the country’s 15 million people are below the age of 25. To tap into this key population, VHWs such as Kundlande are turning peer pressure on its head and exploiting it to achieve positive change.

 

VHWs such as Kundlande are turning peer pressure on its head and exploiting it to achieve positive change.

“Youth resent being told what to do by adults, they see it as imposition, so they resist,” said Kundhlande.

“We realised that youths could influence each other better. We identified young people whom we encouraged to get vaccinated, and we crowned them as vaccine champions who now encourage their peers,” she said. The group aims to establish the youth champions in schools as a next step.

“The youth love the programme, so they just come. They take the information they get from here to their schoolmates, so they are important too,” said Kundhlande, who has been a youth influence since the age of 19 and has been sharpening her capacity with support through the programme.

Championing vaccination for youths in Chimanimani District amongst other youth
UNICEF/2021
Theresa Tsakatsa 18 years, Championing vaccination for youths in Chimanimani District amongst other youth

Kundhlande is one of 983 village health workers of different ages who received support under ZIRP in the cyclone affected areas to cover all aspects of essential community-based health care including sexual and gender-based violence, child safeguarding and prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse as well as COVID-19.

Village health workers, through the ZIRP supported programme reached 574,548 women, children and youths with integrated  social behavior change messages  including early care seeking,  prevention and control of non-communicable and communicable diseases including COVID-19 prevention measures and promoting vaccination.

It is this kind of support that has enabled youthful village health workers such as Kundhlande to continue reaching young people and influencing them to also become youth champions.

One of those already emulating Kundhlande is Patience Mayoyo, a 17-year- old youth champion who spends her free time advocating for young girls to get the HPV vaccine.

Working closely with Kundhalnde in the district, Mayoyo said she is already making an impact in reducing hesitancy for the HPV and COVID-19 vaccine among young people.

Like her mentor Kundhlande, she is winning new friends in the process.

“Some people now want to be close to me because they know I have information that can save them, and they also hope I can help them become youth champions,” she said, smiling.