Covid-19 shots are finally arriving in Africa, but challenges hobble vaccination campaigns

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 (Photo by Ziyaad Douglas/Gallo Images via Getty Images)
(Photo by Ziyaad Douglas/Gallo Images via Getty Images)
  • Vaccination efforts in some parts of Africa are being hampered by funds, equipment, and medical staff shortages. 
  • Countries are receiving higher volumes of vaccine doses but uptake is slow.
  • The World Health Organisation says only 7.5% of Africa's population is fully immunised. 

When a group arrived at the Sekenani health clinic in rural Kenya for their Covid-19 vaccines recently, staff told them there were no doses left, and they should come back soon.

For some, it meant a long wasted journey on foot and a day away from their cattle herds.

Yet Narok county, where the clinic is located, was not short of vaccines; nearly 14 000 doses were sitting in a fridge in the nearest town, 115 km away. Two health workers said that a mix-up with county officials meant Sekenani did not get enough.

"We had to say sorry. It's not a good feeling when somebody comes, and they want the vaccine, and we don't have it," clinician Mike Nalakiti, 27, told Reuters.

The small failure in a village 270 km southwest of the capital Nairobi illustrates the challenges African nations now face as they battle Covid-19 – even though vaccine supplies are finally ramping up, getting needles into arms is proving the hard part.

Health experts say that successful vaccination campaigns in Africa are vital to ending the pandemic globally. The continent's low inoculation rates encourage viral mutations like the new Omicron variant spreading across South Africa, which has prompted another spate of international travel bans.

According to the World Health Organisation, only 102 million people are fully vaccinated, or 7.5% of the continent's population. The WHO warned vaccine inequity will prolong the pandemic.

Until recently, African governments have been crying out for higher vaccine deliveries this year, but production constraints and hoarding by richer countries severely limited supplies.

Shortages of funds, medical staff and equipment, and vaccine hesitancy were already hobbling inoculation campaigns in some parts of Africa. Experts warn that the anticipated surge, comprising millions of jabs in the coming weeks, could further expose those weaknesses.

According to data from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a policy think-tank, about 40% of vaccines that have arrived so far on the continent have not been used.

The institute says that the rate of vaccine use will have to rise four-fold to keep up with the expected supply in the coming months.

"We are all, like you, very concerned that countries are not picking up the vaccines. The uptake is not as we would have loved to see," head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention John Nkengasong said.

Fridges and motorbikes

Vaccination rates vary widely across Africa, a continent of well over a billion people, and some health systems in relatively small nations and north Africa are having more success.

Cape Verde, an archipelago nation off West Africa with about 600 000, has vaccinated nearly 65% of adults, rivalling some European countries.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a restive country in Central Africa with nearly 90 million people, the number is 0.1%.

In some ways, Kenya is doing relatively well. East Africa's largest economy has received nearly five million doses after months of slow supplies in the past two weeks.

On December 1, it vaccinated a record 110 000 people and aims to maintain that rate for the next 30 days, said Willis Akhwale, head of the government's Covid-19 vaccine task force. That would bring the total vaccinated to 10 million out of a population of 47 million, he said.

READ | 'Extreme' vaccine discrimination risks leaving Africa behind - report

Yet in the rural Sekenani clinic at the edge of the famous Maasai Mara Game Reserve, where elephants and lions roam, challenges abound.

The clinic started offering Covid-19 vaccinations four weeks ago. It keeps running out of doses and has only one reliable fridge, also used for routine immunisations, said clinical officer Gerald Yiale.

Staff need motorbikes to take vaccines to the community, semi-nomadic livestock herders from the Maasai ethnic group who struggle to afford transport for healthcare, he said.

He applied to local authorities for funds for mobile vaccination and has not heard back.

"We have been forced to ask the community to come to us instead of us going to them," Yiaile said.

Not enough money

African nations scrambled to ready their health systems earlier this year as global vaccine-sharing scheme Covax began delivering doses in small quantities months after wealthy countries began inoculations.

Covax deliveries were disrupted after the facility's major supplier, India, halted vaccine exports. The pause gave countries time to improve vaccination rollout without being inundated. They did so to differing degrees.

The Gavi vaccine alliance, a co-leader of Covax, initially did not prioritise investing in the ultra-cold chain equipment needed for mRNA shots like Pfizer's because it expected the bulk of doses to be cheaper easier-to-administer AstraZeneca shots produced in India, Reuters reported in September.

Workers load boxes of COVID-19 vaccines for COVAX in Antananarivo, Madagascar.

As vaccine deliveries to Africa soar, absorption of large volumes is expected to represent a significant challenge for many developing countries, mainly because a substantial volume will be from Pfizer, Gavi said in internal documents prepared for its board meeting last week and seen by Reuters.

Even Kenya, which has the ultra-cold chain capacity to store three million Pfizer doses, is worried its cold chain will get constrained by the influx, threatening its routine immunisation programme, Akhwale said.

Cameroon in Central Africa had 244 vaccination centres at the start of its vaccine rollout in April and now has 1 000, said Njoh Andreas Ateke, deputy head of the immunisation programme.

But health workers and officials say that power outages and lack of staff have compromised vaccines.

The country has one refrigerated truck suitable to transport vaccines, said Leonard Kouadio, UNICEF'S health section head in Cameroon. He added that it needs at least 2 500 more fridge temperature gauges and more trucks to increase distribution.

READ | Hospitals prepping for more admissions as fourth wave looms - Ramaphosa

One of Africa's most significant and poorest countries, Mali has two refrigerated trucks to carry vaccines long distances. Some health workers fled their posts in the north because of insecurity caused by an Islamist insurgency, said UNICEF health programme manager in Mali, Abdoul Gadiry Fadiga.

The country expects to receive about 3.5 million doses between now and the end of March, more than double the number it has received since inoculations began, Fadiga said.

Mali has enough cold chain capacity to deal with the initial rush of doses until March, Fadiga added, but it still needs 288 fridges and freezers for its full rollout, only 10 freezers of which had arrived.

Funds have been slow to materialise. The World Bank has approved $9.8 billion for emergency health responses, including vaccine deployment, in developing countries globally, but only $4.4 billion has been disbursed so far.

Mali and Cameroon await support.

A World Bank official said disbursements were happening "very fast".

Reaching out

Even when help arrives, it can backfire. Donors have sometimes sent African nations vaccine batches nearing expiration, in some cases rendering them unusable.

Countries desperate for vaccines, including South Sudan and Congo, had to send some back because they could not distribute them in time. Namibia warned last month it might have to destroy thousands of out-of-date doses.

South Africa asked Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer to delay the delivery of vaccines because they had too much stock.

A fundamental difficulty in administering vaccines is community scepticism, sometimes driven by religious beliefs and mistrust of Western drug companies and their governments. Insufficient education about Covid-19 vaccines enables rumours to spread.

That can result from local staff and budget shortages, health workers from across the continent told Reuters.

Ethiopia is worried that vaccines might expire before they are used due to low demand. It is trying to overcome vaccine hesitancy through outreach to communities via local religious and civil society groups, said Muluken Yohannes,  Ethiopia's health ministry senior adviser.

He said: 

Currently, developed countries...have satisfied their vaccine needs. As a result, they are pushing leftover developing countries. However, the golden period to absorb these vaccines has already passed.

Kenya has ramped up its vaccine rollout with social media and television and radio advertisements promoting vaccines. Posts on the health ministry Twitter feed urge pregnant and breastfeeding mothers to get vaccinated.

Not everyone gets the message. Nicky Theron, 20, who works at a clothing shop in Talek, is five months pregnant and scared of the jab. She doesn't follow any government Twitter accounts.

"I have never heard of anybody who is pregnant receiving the vaccine," she said.

Some feel they could be persuaded if someone came to explain in person.

Julius Tuyioto, who herds livestock on arid plains in southern Kenya, hears the government warn of the dangers of Covid-19 on the radio. But the disease hasn't hit his community. He says it doesn't feel real.

"There is no civic education on why we should be vaccinated. No one is telling us," Tuyioto told Reuters outside his mud-brick home in Narok Count to the chime of goat bells.

Last month, the government sent vaccines by motorbike to the nearest primary school, five kilometres away, he said. But he did not hear about it until the third and final da when it was too late for him to go.

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