South Sudan: We are ready to take up the challenge
Western Equatoria Ministry of Health and UNICEF are preparing for COVID-19 vaccination campaigns.
18 January 2021 – by Yves Willemot, UNICEF South Sudan
“We don't know exactly what to expect as several things remain unclear,” Evans Ariko Shawish begins. “But we are preparing for a quick roll-out of the vaccination campaign against COVID-19 in our state.”
Evans is the Expanded Programme for Immunization (EPI) manager at the Western Equatoria State Ministry of Health (MoH). From his office in the state capital Yambio, he emphasizes the state’s strong experience in rolling out mass vaccination campaigns.
End 2020, his team was fully engaged in implementing a mass polio vaccination campaign, which began in November. The campaign reached more than 95 per cent of the targeted population, a result he speaks of with great pride.
Crucial for the vaccination programme is the existence of a high-quality cold chain system and adequately trained personnel to maintain it. Cold chain is the system through which vaccines are kept in a temperature-controlled environment during transportation and storage all the way until administration. Seven of the ten counties in the State have a solar energy-powered cold chain, provided by MoH with support from UNICEF and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Yambio serves as the central vaccine storage for the state and they supply all the counties with vaccines from this location.
“For now, we store and distribute vaccines against for instance measles and polio,” informs Daniel Drinchi, health officer at UNICEF's field office in Yambio. Once the COVID-19 vaccines are available, they will also be stored and distributed through this cold chain.
With the support of UNICEF Yambio field office, the State MoH, has begun preparations for the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine and is laying the groundwork for the large-scale vaccination campaign. With the existence of a good cold chain and expertise to maintain it as well as administer the vaccine, Western Equatoria State is well positioned to successfully roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccination campaigns once the vaccine becomes available in South Sudan. In addition, the State will also require sterile needles, syringes and safety boxes for disposal of used needles and syringes.
“This vaccination campaign will be special. It will not be about young children, pregnant women and young mothers as we are used to, but elderly people and primary health workers; we will need to reach a different group than we normally do,” explains Evans.
The social mobilizers will play a critical role informing the population about the vaccine. Over the last nine months, the social mobilizers have been doing a great job raising awareness and sensitize the local communities about the coronavirus, according to Evans.
As soon as the vaccine becomes available, their role will be even more critical. They will support information campaigns on who will receive the vaccine first and why. Additionally, the mobilizers will be tasked with countering vaccine myths and misinformation likely to circulate on social media, especially via whatsapp groups like they did with the virus. The mobilizers are well placed to do so, as they have the confidence of people in the local communities.
“Leaders can also play an important role. The governor of the state and religious and community leaders can encourage people to do the right thing, and only listen to information disseminated by reliable sources such as the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF,” says Evans.
He reiterates that in spite of getting the COVID-19 vaccine, wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing and handwashing will remain important to avoid spreading the virus.
“We are confident that the COVID-19 vaccination campaign in our state will be successful. Hopefully we can start with the vaccinations before the rainy season in March-April. When the rain comes, many roads in the state are washed away and large population groups become inaccessible,” conclude Evans and Daniel.
UNICEF, WHO and Gavi are helping the Government of South Sudan to prepare and develop a national deployment and vaccination plan for the roll out of COVID-19 vaccines.