Overcoming vaccine hesitancy in Tanzania

Community health workers in Tanzania encounter various forms of resistance while encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Some people live far from health clinics. Others don’t know a vaccine could save their life. One man told Beata Mayok, a community health worker in Tanzania’s Arusha region, that his family had “been saved by our faith; we don’t need your vaccines.”

Mayok and other health workers educate people on the importance of getting vaccinated. “They are fed poor information on the vaccines, and what we normally do is to state the facts,” said Mayok, of the Moivaro Health Center near Arusha city.

Woman talking to group of people (USAID/Frank Kimaro)
A community health worker (right) tries to convince a metal worker in Arusha, Tanzania, to get vaccinated against COVID-19. (USAID/Frank Kimaro)

Community health workers convey accurate information on vaccines in the local language. Although Swahili is Tanzania’s national language, about 125 other languages are also spoken in the country.

Supporting Tanzania’s health workers

Addressing the information gaps that lead to vaccine hesitancy is a pillar of the COVID-19 Global Vaccine Action Plan that the United States and partner nations announced in February to increase COVID-19 vaccinations around the world.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), with support from the U.S. government’s Initiative for Global Vaccine Access, or Global VAX, works with Tanzania’s government and other partners to combat misinformation, change attitudes and increase vaccinations.

USAID increases COVID-19 vaccinations in numerous African countries, including by supporting mass vaccination sites in Uganda, assisting health workers in Zambia, and helping train nurses in Kenya to treat COVID-19 patients with medical oxygen.

In Tanzania, the United States has provided $25 million to help increase confidence in COVID-19 vaccines and make vaccination sites more accessible. It also has shared more than 7 million COVID-vaccine doses with Tanzania, free of charge.

Two women in lab coats walking on dirt road (USAID/Frank Kimaro)
Beata Mayok (left) and Gladyness Jofrey, community health workers in Tanzania’s Arusha region, visit homes to increase COVID-19 vaccinations. (USAID/Frank Kimaro)

As a result of joint efforts, Tanzania’s COVID-19 vaccination rate more than tripled in just over two months. As of August 19, 54% of Tanzania’s eligible population had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, moving Tanzania toward its goal of vaccinating 70% of people over 18 years old.

Overcoming vaccine access challenges

To increase confidence in COVID-19 vaccines, Mayok and her colleagues enlist the help of religious and community leaders and meet people who do not live near health clinics.

“We walk house to house, and sometimes we attend village meetings, visit marketplaces and also churches,” Mayok said. With that approach, health workers vaccinated nearly 2,900 people in a month, several times the number vaccinated in the six months prior, when vaccines were administered primarily at clinics.

Man and woman in lab coat giving thumbs up and smiling (USAID/Frank Kimaro)
Mayok (right), a community health worker in Tanzania, with Lawrence Laban after vaccinating him against COVID-19. (USAID/Frank Kimaro)

One of those they vaccinated, Lawrence Laban, 65, says he no longer fears getting COVID-19.

“Since the doctors came to my house and explained to me that based on my age I am at risk, I decided to get the vaccine,” Laban said.

A version of this story previously appeared on Medium.