By Okech Francis
When the COVID-19 vaccines were first dispatched to South Sudan two years ago, communities around the country, including in Jonglei State, stepped up in resistance, basing on myths and misconceptions to shun intake.
Two years later, there is a turnaround, low still, but people are beginning to understand the benefits of the vaccines against the global pandemic that caused millions of death from its onset from Wuhan, China in late 2019.
In Jonglei capital Bor, Awuor Alier Nyok got her shot of the COVID-19 vaccine finally this year.
The 47-year-old who hails from Bor Payam explained her delay in getting the jab as a strategy of playing safe due to the misconceptions.
Jonglei State government, backed by UNICEF is part of a nationwide COVID-19 vaccination campaign to keep South Sudanese safe.
“I came for vaccination because I fear COVID-19 and now I know the vaccination is safe,” Nyok told Juba Echo on a Sunday Morning after receiving the vaccine at Ningil Vaccination Center situated at the premises of the Pentecostal Church in the State capital.
An earlier campaign two years back was planned by the State to reach out to over 900,000 people but only 19 percent of an expected 42 percent of that number took the vaccine.
Setbacks to that campaign included negative propaganda including myths from members of the communities, the State Minister of Health, Atong Kuol Manyang told Juba Echo in Bor.
“Our teams on the ground met a lot of negative propaganda that it causes infertility, that it will make people die in two years and this religious myth that the vaccine is from the devil, this issue of 666,” Manyang said.
“During the last phase, we targeted 963,000 people of 18 years and above but could only reach 404, 253,” she said.
Optimism is however much higher in the current campaign underway since health partners and the government has joined forces with local and religious leaders to sensitize communities over the benefits of the vaccine.
The campaign is using the United States manufactured Johnson and Johnson vaccine for both first doses and boosters.
It’s a $200 million World Bank Health Project for Emergency Response and Health Systems that runs for 2 years premised on strengthening the response to COVID-19, while consolidating health service delivery for refugees and host communities in Upper Nile, Jonglei and Unity states, as well as the Greater Pibor Administrative Area.
By reporting time, 47,462 people out of a projected number of 254,804 had been vaccinated in 8 counties across Jonglei, a WHO dashboard showed.
The booster doses are being given to people who took the first vaccines of both the Johnson & Johnson as well as Astrazeneca.
According to the head chief of Macdeng Boma in Baidit Payam in Bor County, Alier Kut Alier, engagement with communities and as well positive results from the first exercise have boosted trust in the vaccine.
Alier was personally monitoring the exercise at a vaccination site in Baidit.
“We faced a lot of misconceptions on causing infertility in women especially and some were saying the vaccine kills after two years but now after some women were vaccinated and are still giving birth, communities are accepting,” the 72 year old who has already taken a booster vaccine said.
“We will advocate for vaccination for everyone so that our communities remain safe,” Alier said.
Besides chiefs, religious and political leaders, the youths are also actively talking to community members to enroll into the exercise.
At Bor Stadium vaccination center, Achol Ajak, a 24 year old social mobilizer is constantly on the ground ensuring the people embrace the vaccine.
“My work is to go to the community and explain to them about the vaccine,” Ajak told Juba Echo.
“Our people, they always get wrong messages on COVID-19 vaccination but I tell them this vaccine is 100 percent safe,” she said.
“I always give them my own example-I tell them the people who brought the vaccine care about your health and that it’s healthy to vaccinate.”
Like her, William Deng Ayuen the Communication Officer for the Expanded Program of Immunization in Bor County told Juba Echo that continuous mobilization is the only tool to ensure success of the vaccination campaign.
“Our people are hard to accept when there is already a misconception, especially the young people but we just continue to talk, and it needs time,” Ayuen said.
Abraham Mawut Chol is a youth who has already accepted to ensure full vaccination against COVID-19.
“I hear that this dose is helpful and can prevent you from COVID-19,” Chol told Juba Echo as he sat down to take a booster dose at Ningil Vaccination Center.
“Young people fear the misconception of infertility but I got convinced by the health partners,” he said.
“I will also go and convince them on the importance of being vaccinated.”
Generally, Jonglei is one of the States with the poorest health facilities following strings of conflicts which led to massive destruction of earlier existing infrastructure and services.
The capital Bor itself faced massive destruction in 1991 before independence and then again after 2013 when conflict erupted post independence.
Health facilities were looted and destroyed, health practitioners were either killed or fled, and even patients killed on hospital beds.
According to Minister Manyang, heavy flood from 2020 to 2021 simply worsened the state of health provision.
With a transitional government relatively pacifying the country, the authorities in Jonglei and health partners are using the chance to ensure the devastation is overturned.
Manyang said with floods, Jonglei was hit with health problems including malaria, cholera and even poison through snake bites.
The current dry season hasn’t helped reduce health challenges and “we are telling the people to continue with the basics-proper hygiene, drink clean and boiled water, eat clean food well cooked and hot,” she said.
The Health Minister believes with the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, Jonglei is on the right track to ensure quality health in the communities.
“We want to put focus on all counties across Jonglei,” Minister Manyang said.
“We realized the challenge during the first campaign and have been working to ensure our people this time have a different perspective,” she said.
“We are still low. We hope in this phase we will reach up to our target which is 42 percent of the target population and with persistent campaign, it will work.”
The message was very clear for 38 year old Deborah Ayak Ngong.
She was the 12th person taking the vaccine as early as 8.00am at Ningil Vaccination Center when Juba Echo approached her.
“I am going to tell everyone to come for vaccination because all those who were vaccinated before are still alive,” Ngong said.