Covid vaccine arrives in Uganda

Ugandan staff at Potter's Village posign for a photo post-vaccination. Inset of vaccination

Staff at Potter’s Village pictured after their Covid-19 vaccinations. Inset: Nicci Maxwell, as a front-line health worker, receives her vaccination.

The staff at Potter’s Village medical centre were among the early adopters as Uganda’s vaccine rollout began among a sometimes sceptical population. Mission partner Nicci Maxwell, who works at Potter’s Village, reports.

It’s here! Eight hundred and sixty-four thousand doses of the Astra Zeneca Covid vaccine arrived in Uganda in early March, thanks to the wonder that is COVAX [the global initiative to provide vaccines in the majority world].

The official launch of the Ugandan vaccine programme saw the health minister and her permanent secretary receiving their vaccines live on TV and social media and reported on the front page of all the papers.

As early as Friday 12 March we heard rumours that the vaccine had arrived at our District Health Office but we all know the value (or lack thereof) of rumours here so no one got too excited.

However, on the following Monday, we got the call from the superintendent of the government hospital to say that any health workers who wanted to be vaccinated should turn up at the hospital any day that week. As I’m at the hospital on Tuesdays anyway, I decided to combine it with a visit to the vaccine clinic. All that was needed was to take my passport with me.

I was very surprised at how quiet it was! I had been seeing some patients on the children’s ward with Rachel, the nutritionist, so at around 11.30am I asked her if she was interested in having the vaccine and she readily agreed to join me. I thought it might be nice to have someone to chat to if we had to wait in a queue but we were the only ones waiting!

The lovely Sister Beatrice had been immunising newborns with the BCG and oral polio vaccine all morning and arrived to start the Covid jabs just after we got there. She was so apologetic for keeping us waiting and I’m not sure she believed us when we said we’d only been there for about five minutes and had actually enjoyed a quiet sit-down.

Consent forms were quickly completed, identities checked and both Rachel and I had our jabs. Just as we finished, another staff member arrived to receive his vaccine. I thought of all my friends in the UK who had timed appointments and strictly marshalled one-way queuing systems to get their injections…definitely a more chilled out approach here!

Unfortunately the vaccine record cards that we are supposed to receive haven’t arrived so I just took a photo of the signed consent form and the entry in the vaccine register which gives names, dates and vaccine batch numbers. Hopefully if I need evidence of having had the jab, that might be enough. I guess most other people getting jabs in Kisoro are probably not thinking about international travel in the coming months as I am. Uganda is planning to have an eight-week dose interval but I’m sure that will depend on supplies being available at the time.

It seems vaccine uptake by the staff at the government hospital was pretty low. Many people view the ‘newness’ of the vaccine with suspicion. It probably didn’t help that the ‘blood clots with AZ vaccine’ news story broke that week and bad news or seeds of doubt spread much more quickly than good news stories.

Perhaps the low uptake among government staff is what prompted Sister Beatrice to bring the vaccine to Potter’s Village on Thursday. Some of our staff had seen me alive (yes, really!) after my vaccine on Tuesday and had been to get theirs on Wednesday and a majority of those on duty on Thursday got theirs when Sister Beatrice came to us.

There was much hilarity as our immunisation clinic nurse who puts immunisation needles into small children for around 20 hours a week got really squeamish and anxious about having the same done to him! He was fine and laughed along with us when it was done!

Just over one third of our team have received their immunisations now and a few more are being done today. We are not forcing anyone to be immunised but we are trying to reduce any hesitancy and encourage participation by providing honest and factual answers to their doubts and questions. I’m trying to have a ‘Covid jab fact’ at each handover based on worries I’ve heard about or questions I’ve been asked or bits of news that have come out in the preceding day or so.

It’s a really good feeling to know that I can feel a bit more confident about interacting with sick people all day! I’m conscious of the privilege of being one of the 864,000 lucky recipients of this first batch of COVAX-supplied vaccine in Uganda. I might even feel brave enough to go to church in a couple of weeks.

As I said to our team, I don’t mind if the vaccine doesn’t completely stop me from being unwell but if it can keep me out of hospital and out of a grave, I’m a very happy health worker.

UPDATE: As of 1 April, the total number of people vaccinated in Uganda was just under 70,000. The vaccine rollout continues to health workers, military and police, teachers and the over-70s. Uptake is still poor and there’s a big campaign to encourage people to get vaccinated. The president and his wife, as well as the Archbishop of the Church of Uganda, have had their jabs and public information programmes are being broadcast on TV and social media.

Published 5 April 2021

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