Changing attitudes, increasing COVID-19 vaccinations

Two women in orange T-shirts that say 'End Pandemics' talking to each other (Courtesy of Bridget Siulanda/JSI)
USAID and partners train community health workers in Zambia to message on COVID-19 vaccine safety. Health workers Ivy Kakungu and Pizza Chendaka begin their shift in Kitwe. (Courtesy of Bridget Siulanda/JSI)

For many Zambians, traveling to a COVID-19 vaccination site is a long and expensive journey. Some must choose between traveling to a health facility for a vaccine and working to feed their family.

“Visiting people in their community really works,” says Albertina Mukuka, a community health worker in the town of Chingola. The mother of four works with one of the COVID-19 vaccination teams that bring accurate COVID-19 vaccine information to people in Zambia’s markets, bus stations, schools and places of worship. “They are happy we come to them, as we’re making life easier for them,” she says.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and partner JSI trained tens of thousands of Zambian community health workers, through USAID’s DISCOVER-Health Project.

Bringing vaccines to communities

Collage of two photos, with woman getting vaccinated and receiving vaccination card (Courtesy of Bridget Siulanda/JSI)
Quizee accepted a dose of COVID-19 vaccine after meeting with health worker Albertina Mukuka in Chingola. (Courtesy of Bridget Siulanda/JSI)

Training health workers is part of the U.S. government’s Global Vaccine Access (Global VAX) Initiative, launched in December 2021 to help achieve the World Health Organization’s goal of vaccinating 70% of the population against COVID-19 in 2022.

The Global VAX strategy to help Zambia overcome barriers to COVID-19 vaccinations focuses on one-on-one interactions with people in their communities. The approach pairs community health workers with vaccine providers so when someone consents to vaccination, a dose is immediately provided.

Zambia’s government started its COVID-19 vaccine rollout in April 2021, aiming to fully vaccinate 70% of eligible people this year. But supply challenges and a lack of accurate information on vaccines initially delayed vaccinations. The United States has provided Zambia more than 5.2 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, part of over 575 million doses delivered with international partners to countries around the world.

As of July 12, more than 43% of eligible Zambians have been vaccinated. The country recently rolled out a booster dose program. Zambia also has expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to youth ages 12–17, increasing the number of people who can be vaccinated.

Battling misinformation

Woman holding up vaccination card as she speaks to students in classroom (Courtesy of Bridget Siulanda/JSI)
Melinda Fisulo, a community health worker in Kabwe, discusses COVID-19 vaccinations with a group of students. (Courtesy of Bridget Siulanda/JSI)

Vaccination teams now also visit schools. Melinda Fisulo, a community health worker in Kabwe, says, “Coming directly into the schools definitely helps, rather than the parents bringing the children to the health facility.”

Yet battling vaccine misinformation remains a challenge. “We share all the benefits of the vaccine with people, but still there are so many rumors and myths going around,” said Ivy Kakungu, a community health worker in the town of Kitwe in Zambia’s Copperbelt province.

USAID’s community health workers continue to change attitudes and help Zambia make progress toward its vaccination target. “My job is so rewarding,” Mukuka said. “I love knowing I have got through to someone with the right information. It makes me feel good to know we are making a difference.”

A version of this story previously appeared on Medium.