Ouestafnews – in collaboration with Awoko News. In December 2022, the government of Sierra Leone marked a major victory in its three-year and still on-going battle against the COVID-19 virus.
“As of December 2022, we surpassed the threshold of 70% percent of the population that have been vaccinated,” said Harold Thomas, Health Education Program Manager at the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation. “Currently, we are at 76%, chasing 80%,” he added.
This is a major milestone. According to the World Health Organization and the Africa CDC, Sierra Leone is just one of only three countries in the West Africa region to hit the 70% or more fully COVID-19 vaccinated population mark, along with neighbors Liberia (80.2%) and Cabo Verde (79.4%).
This nearly 77% COVID-19 vaccination rate is also significant because it firmly places the country on the path to achieving what scientists refer to as “herd immunity,” that is having the maximum number of people vaccinated against the virus in order to keep the spread of it under control. Researchers tracking this particular virus, the Coronavirus (COVID-19), estimate that in order to achieve herd immunity, around 75-80% of the population would need to be vaccinated.
Not only has Sierra Leone reached a vaccination high mark, it can also claim victory because getting to this point was definitely not easy, Thomas said. Health workers faced many challenges on the road to convincing people to get vaccinated.
“Misinformation, myth, fake news and misconception were trending at that moment,” Thomas recalled.
Despite this, he continued, “The Health Risk Communication team members were able to counter misinformation by providing the people with factual information. They were able to address the people’s concerns which led to the drastic drop in misinformation and fake news through the use of media education, focus group discussions and theater among others,” he said.
On March 31, 2020, when the government declared it had registered its first COVID-19 case in the country, this was March 31, 2020, the initial public reaction was not positive, Thomas recalled. Many people were skeptical. Some even said that the government was just trying to solicit or benefit from donations from the international community, he added.
The arrival of the first shipment of the newly discovered COVID-19 vaccines on March 8, 2021, did not immediately change these attitudes, he said. The first vaccine received was AstraZeneca. It was acquired by the government of Sierra Leone in collaboration with the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) Facility, an international donor initiative created to make sure that not only wealthy countries and their populations could have access to the vaccines. COVAX is led by CEPI (the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations), GAVI, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF.
People had a lot of apprehensions, said Thomas. In fact they called for those in authority, including the President, Ministers, and other senior citizens to take the lead in getting the first vaccination dose in full view of the public.
One of the main reasons the people were asking for such condition is that there were claims that the vaccines would lead to early death while others were misinforming their colleagues that the vaccines were a strategy to reduce the African population, Thomas continued.
“The barrier of hesitancy and reluctance were to some extent broken by the President publicly taking the vaccine together with other senior government officials,” he said, adding that following this, many more people started to come forth to get vaccinated and “the entire situation started to change.”
Public health education campaigns were critical to helping to get more people to come out and get vaccinated.
In some communities it was not easy to get people to get vaccinated, recalled Aminata Kamara, Data Clerk at the Rokupa Government Hospital East End.
During the pandemic, residents in some communities would only take it (a vaccination shot) when they could see another person within their vicinity taking it, Mrs. Kamara recalled. At the same time, she continued, “In some other communities, once an individual refuses to take it, nobody will take it.” But over time, attitudes started to change, she said and now, “people willingly visit the center to get vaccinated.”
Seeing how their fellow citizens reacted to the vaccine also helped reduce fears. People were convinced to take the vaccines after realizing that there were no major side effects on those who have already taken their doses, Thomas said. This reality countered the misinformation and various myths that were circulating, he said, stories about how the vaccines will damage reproductive organs of males and females and also reduce people’s life span.
Community Mobilisers, who are mostly volunteers within the various communities, worked alongside the health workers to convince and provide counseling to community members, urging those who were at first reluctant to take the vaccines, Mrs. Kamara said.
As the head of Health Education, Thomas is charged with educating the public about the efficacy of all the different COVID vaccines being distributed by the health ministry.
Choice about which vaccine to get was an issue at the initial stage with some people wanted to take a specific vaccine. Over time, the number of vaccines available has increased. Initially, in addition to AstraZeneca, there were three other vaccines that were made available: Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and Sinopharm. Now there is a fifth one, Sinovac.
Even if some people have a preferential vaccine, Thomas noted, the fact is that the COVID-19 vaccines are all “pretty much the same” and “safe and effective.”
As for how the vaccine is administered, Thomas said the health ministry is “relying on science.” For example, initially, if one took Astra-Zeneca for the first dose the person had to take the same vaccine for the next dose.
However, he said, this advice has changed with time, based on scientific recommendation. Now, he continued, one can take Astra-Zeneca for the first dose, and can take Sinopharm, Sinovac or any other vaccine for the second dose. Personally, he added, this is just what he did. He took a different type of vaccine as booster from the one he took for the first and second dose.
The policy of mixing and matching has changed all together which makes things easier for the patient, public and health workers, he said.
The only exception to this mixing of vaccines is for young people, Thomas noted. It is recommended, he said, that children between 12 to 18 years to only take the Pfizer vaccine.
Also, he said, people living in remote and hard to reach communities were advised to take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it only required a single dose.
During the peak of the pandemic, among the factors that pushed many people to get vaccinated, despite their fears and reluctance, was employment and public access, in particular when various employers and public spaces started requiring proof of vaccination.
Now that infection rates have declined along with the pandemic panic, Sierra Leone’s health officials are not relaxing their push to encourage people to get vaccinated and boosted.
At the start of the pandemic many people turned up in large numbers to get vaccinated because they wanted to be safe, said Fatmata Isha Koroma, Vaccinator Lead at Rokupa Government Hospital.
However, she said, the trajectory has changed significantly, she said. The hospital was used to see more than 70 people a day for vaccinations and now it’s around five to 15 per day and, she added, those coming now are usually those who are planning to travel out of the country.
Mrs. Koroma noted how during the peak of the COVID-19 period, community leaders played a vital role in educating the public about the importance of getting vaccinated.
This type of effort is still needed and people must continue to be vigilant. There is still, she stressed, a need to sustain the COVID-19 campaign in order to achieve 100% coverage.
By Alhajim Kamara