Why Africa doesn’t need to suffer the brunt of vaccine inequality

Ndelle Ngabe Makoge, September 2021
A man is given the COVID-19 vaccine by a health care worker.
Na’An Kayou, a community drug distributor, receives the COVID-19 vaccine in Cameroon.

Africa is behind on the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out. With only three per cent of the population vaccinated, compared to around 65 per cent in Europe, and 54 per cent in America*, global inequalities have never been starker. But this doesn’t have to be the case. There are programmes already in place that can support vaccine distribution in the continent.

Vaccine supply in Africa isn’t the only issue; it’s the roll-out too. It’s having the capacity, logistics and contacts to reach millions of people over miles and miles, often where transport and health infrastructure can be lacking. But thanks to existing partner and volunteer networks, and decades of experience, Sightsavers’ neglected tropical disease (NTD) programmes already have strong structures in place to support the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine once it is in-country. And we have a strong track record in doing this, so far delivering more than 1.3 billion treatments for NTDs.

The journey of the treatment from manufacturer to community is complex. Those who need treatment often live in remote areas where flooding can damage the road and wash away bridges or there are security concerns that hinder the delivery of essential health services. This is where, together with governments, partners and communities, we find solutions to deliver treatments in even the most difficult circumstances. For example, in 2018, Sightsavers along with the World Health Organization (WHO) and partners supported the Yemen Ministry of Health to deliver trachoma treatment to around half a million people.

Last month in Cameroon, we had our first opportunity to harness an NTD programme to vaccinate volunteers and health workers who deliver treatments to communities. My team and I had been concerned about vaccine equity since the arrival of the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine back in April. Doses were limited and priority was given to health staff, the military and those aged 50 plus. However, our hope was restored when additional doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were donated by the US Embassy to the Cameroon Ministry of Health, to boost vaccine coverage in the country.

We took advantage of this, proposing to the Ministry of Health that they should use the Act to End NTDs West programme’s training of community volunteers to also promote the vaccine and offer it to those taking part in the training. This was greatly welcomed at both national and regional levels.

Hear from some of the community volunteers who got vaccinated in Cameroon:

Follow the journey of a trachoma treatment

Once treatments like the COVID-19 vaccine have reached a country, there are still many challenges before they reach remote communities.

Read the story

As well as reducing the risk of death and serious illness from COVID-19, this work helped to dispel misinformation. As with any new vaccine, the community volunteers were concerned. Most of their worries came from misinformation spread on social media, but they also believed that due to living in rural areas, their risk of getting COVID-19 was lower. We successfully worked to desensitise the volunteers and the full number of provided doses was accepted.

This is important work, as volunteers are known and respected by their communities so they can encourage others to trust the vaccine when they travel to local towns and villages.

But so much more is possible. If we attach the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine to existing NTD programmes then it can happen more quickly, be better value for money and be more effective, ensuring that no one is left behind.

If we can control the virus here in Cameroon, and in West Africa, then we can control the virus across the world. We all have our part to play in tackling COVID-19 and ridding the world of NTDs. Together we can enhance the health, quality of life and future wellbeing of people affected by these conditions. Let’s do this!

*Source: BBC News

A male healthcare worker stands outside wearing a colourful face mask and a white coat.

Fighting COVID-19 and NTDs

Discover how the Ascend West and Central Africa programme and its partners supported ministries to respond to COVID-19.

Read on Storymaps


Ndelle Ngabe Makoge is a NTDs programme officer for Sightsavers, based in Cameroon.


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