Atilio Rivera, an INTERSOS physician, reports that “The first phase of vaccinations, as part of the COVAX campaign, has made health personnel safe. Then we will move on to the population groups most at risk”
Atilio Rivera is an INTERSOS doctor with many years of experience in the field. For weeks, together with his medical and humanitarian colleagues, he has been carrying out COVID-19 awareness and vaccination activities in the state of Borno, in the north-east of Nigeria, in support of the government authorities. “About 1.9 million doses have been delivered by COVAX so far” explains Dr Rivera. “There will then be six more deliveries in the coming months with the aim of vaccinating 20% of the population“.
INTERSOS has launched operations to support vaccination against COVID-19 in Nigeria as part of the international initiative COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility) aimed at the equitable distribution of vaccines around the world. For the State of Borno there are three stages of vaccination. The first one is intended for health workers and front-line workers, including those in charge of vehicle refueling stations and the most at risk groups of the population: the elderly and people with specific diseases. “To date, 75,000 doses have arrived in the State of Borno for phase 1. These doses have been divided into two parts, respectively, 50% for the first and 50% for the second dose“.
Before the start of vaccination, INTERSOS launched awareness campaigns on the risks of contagion from COVID-19. For a few weeks, however, humanitarian workers have taken an active role in the transport and administration of vaccines in various areas of the territory, even the most remote. “In the State of Borno people have lived for years in internal socio-political instability. The health system of this region is very fragile, there are no resources to guarantee full and complete medical care to the population, so imagine the many difficulties linked to the dissemination of the vaccine against COVID-19”.
The Vaccination Numbers
From March 21st to 31st, INTERSOS contributed to the vaccination of 28,055 people (31% women, 69% men), 4564 of which were directly vaccinated by INTERSOS medical staff. Rivera underlines the importance of participating in the COVAX initiative also in terms of population awareness: “In addition to direct and indirect intervention on vaccination with our health professionals, we support local authorities in communicating the risk through radio messages, posters, banners and brochures distributed to the community to inform people and thus increase their knowledge and awareness about vaccines”.
Access to health in this area is essential for the most vulnerable people such as children, women and the elderly. In general, routine vaccination includes vaccines for 12 preventable diseases (measles, TB, polio, rubella, etc.) which are provided in all clinics in the area. “The cold chain is sufficient for these routine vaccinations, but it is not enough for COVID-19 vaccines” explains Rivera, “which is why we are trying to expand the number of cold chain stations to get more possible doses of vaccines“. The involvement of INTERSOS in the COVAX campaign will continue in the coming months, the medical staff will support the local authorities in the administration of the second dose starting from May 1st and for 10 days reaching approximately 28,055 people. A new cycle will start with the first dose in April with the aim of vaccinating around 38,000 people.
Territorial Insecurity and the Absence of a Health System
The intense instability due to the ongoing conflict further affects the operations of the humanitarian organisations present on the site and the ability to reach remote areas of the region for both logistical and security reasons, due to the constant danger of attack by armed groups. “INTERSOS is currently the only NGO that is intervening on COVID-19 vaccination through the COVAX campaign” says Rivera. “Although this is a strong motivation for us, it is still a clear sign of a lack of medical intervention in places where adequate health care could save lives every day“.
The humanitarian crisis in the north-eastern states of Nigeria, such as Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, will persist throughout the course of 2021, as predicted by the analyses of OCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs). The persistence of the internal conflict will still seriously affect millions of people, who will be forced to flee their homes and become displaced, in full poverty with their safety at risk. In the State of Borno, where INTERSOS is mainly active on the health front and the protection of the local population, about 81% of that population are internally displaced people, of which just over half (54%) reside in the camps. The absence of safe places, of essential goods such as food and medical care, is further compromising the survival of people, especially women and children.
Living in an area like this, especially in times of pandemic, means having to deal with an unmanageable threat in a place where there are no medical clinics and hospitals, where doctors are few and the continued strong presence of diseases such as malaria, cholera and others, which mainly affect minors, cause a very high level of infant and neonatal mortality.