With 47 African countries now rolling out COVID-19 vaccines and over 17 million doses given on the continent, early insights from Africa’s largest-ever immunization drive offer hope, inspiration and early, yet vital lessons. Here, we shine a light on key lessons emerging from countries that have made strong progress, including Angola, Ghana, Mauritius and Rwanda.
PLANNING AND PREPARATION IS CRUCIAL
Nearly 40 African countries developed national vaccination plans before COVID-19 vaccines began arriving in bulk on the continent, many with support and guidance from WHO.
This early, wide-ranging preparation is paying-off, as countries with good plans and logistical capacities already in place began vaccinating their priority populations the fastest.
Ghana, the first African country to receive vaccines through the COVAX facility, reached over 470 000 people in areas with the highest number of COVID-19 cases in just 20 days, including over 60% of its first phase target population and around 90% of all health workers.
EXISTING HEALTH SYSTEMS GIVE A STRONG BASE
“In Rwanda, we built our COVID-19 vaccination programme on the experience from other diseases,” says Dr Sabin Nsanzimana, Director General of the Rwanda Biomedical Centre.
“We plugged in to the [existing] system, which was easier and faster, and we had capacity to store vaccines that require special conditions, including from fighting Ebola. We had teams that were trained in rolling out vaccines at the central, district and community levels.”
Along with over 40 countries in the WHO African Region, Rwanda also made use the WHO’s COVID-19 Vaccine Country Readiness Assessment Tool to guide and monitor preparations.
COMMUNICATE EARLY, STRATEGICALLY AND PERSISTENTLY
Communications must start early to prepare communities to receive the vaccine, and must be part of wider outreach plans to stop the spread of the disease.
Early evidence from across Africa shows that many are eager to get the vaccine, despite very limited supplies. Yet battling hesitancy among some older people, as well as managing demand and eagerness among the young has been a challenge in some countries.
Ghana’s communication and demand generation for COVID-19 vaccines has been strong, with clear audiences, messages and well-planned work with radio, TV, social media and through trained spokespeople, influencers, partner organizations and among communities.
Actions were informed by prior public assessments and analysis that help track opinions and shift approaches in line with public concerns over time.
BROAD PARTNERSHIPS ARE CRUCIAL
A huge national endeavor needs a whole of society approach, both before and during the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.
With strong leadership and coordination from the Ministry of Health, partnerships across and beyond government have proved crucial in countries that have shown early successes.
Angola, Ghana, Mauritius and Rwanda have all stressed the need for multi-sectoral partnerships to be in place at the national, district and local levels, including with international partners and business, especially if official resources are over-stretched.
“Coordination in Ghana is excellent, from the highest levels down to each district,” notes Osei-Sarpong. “We’re getting good data from the field to feed into the higher decision-making bodies, and regional and district leaders lead the charge at their own levels.”
RISKS AND CHALLENGES
Despite a promising start, some African countries are rapidly running out of COVID-19 vaccines. Others face delays through a lack of funds or limited planning.
As of 12 April, less than 2% of the 780 million COVID-19 vaccine doses given globally have been administered in Africa. More doses are urgently needed to keep up the momentum and to meet the objectives detailed in each country’s vaccine roll out plan.
“The only real challenge we have is that we need more doses to reach our target of vaccinating 60% of our population by next year,” explains Dr Sabin Nsanzimana in Rwanda.