COVID-19 vaccine supplies are increasing in Africa. But administering the treatments to people across the continent is proving difficult.
Health experts say successful vaccination campaigns in Africa are important to ending the pandemic worldwide. Africa’s low vaccination rates increase the risk that the virus will change, like the new Omicron variant spreading in South Africa.
The World Health Organization says 102 million people, or 7.5 percent of Africa’s population, are fully vaccinated.
African governments repeatedly appealed for increased vaccine supply this year. But production restrictions and storing of extra vaccines by richer countries severely limited supplies until recently.
Shortages of money, medical workers and equipment were already causing problems for vaccination campaigns in some parts of Africa. Experts warn that the expected increase of vaccines in the coming weeks could uncover those weaknesses further.
About 40 percent of vaccines that have arrived so far on the continent have not been used. That information comes from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a non-profit policy organization.
The rate of vaccine use will have to increase by four times the current level to keep up with expected supply in coming months, the institute says.
Vaccination rates differ widely across Africa. Some health systems in relatively small nations and in North Africa are having more success.
Cape Verde, off the coast of West Africa and with a population of about 600,000, has vaccinated nearly 65 percent of adults.
In Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa, with a population of nearly 90 million, the number is 0.1 percent.
Kenya has received nearly 5 million doses in recent weeks after months of slow supplies.
Willis Akhwale is head of the government's COVID-19 vaccine response team. He said Kenya vaccinated a record 110,000 people on December 1 and aims to maintain that rate for the next month. He said that would bring the total number vaccinated to 10 million out of a population of 47 million people.
But the rural Sekenani health center, about 270 kilometers southwest of Kenya’s capital Nairobi, faces many difficulties.
The center started offering COVID-19 vaccinations last month. Gerald Yiaile, one of the workers there, said the center keeps running out of vaccine doses and has only one dependable refrigerator. The refrigerator is also used for other vaccines.
Workers need motorbikes to take vaccines to the community. Many people are too poor to pay for travel to a healthcare site, he said.
Yiaile asked local officials for support for mobile vaccination and has not heard back.
"We have been forced to ask the community to come to us instead of us going to them," he said.
Cameroon in Central Africa had 244 vaccination centers when the country began its vaccination campaign in April. Now, there are 1,000 centers, said Cameroon’s deputy head of the immunization program.
But health workers and officials say that power failures and a lack of workers have threatened the usability of vaccines.
Leonard Kouadio is head of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) health section in Cameroon. He said the country has one refrigerated truck able to transport vaccines. He added that Cameroon needs at least 2,500 more refrigerator temperature-measuring devices and more trucks to increase distribution.
Mali, one of Africa's largest and poorest countries, has two refrigerated trucks to carry vaccines long distances. Conflict in the northern part of the country led some health workers there to flee their posts, said UNICEF health program director in Mali, Abdoul Gadiry Fadiga.
Mali expects to receive about 3.5 million doses between now and the end of March 2022. That is more than two times the number it has received since vaccinations began, Fadiga said.
Mali has enough storage resources to deal with the number of vaccination doses until March. But Fadiga added that the country still needs 288 more refrigerators and freezers for the future.
The World Bank has approved $9.8 billion for emergency health assistance in developing countries worldwide. But so far only $4.4 billion have been given out.
Also, some donated vaccine treatments were sent very close to their expiration date. Countries in urgent need of vaccines, including South Sudan and Congo, had to return some donations as a result. Namibia warned last month it may have to destroy thousands of out-of-date vaccine treatments.
South Africa asked Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer to delay delivery of vaccines because it had too many.
One major difficulty in giving out vaccines is community distrust, sometimes caused by religious belief and mistrust of Western drug companies and their governments. A lack of education about COVID-19 vaccines enables rumors to spread.
That can be the result of local worker and financial shortages, health workers across Africa told Reuters.
Ethiopia is worried that vaccines might expire before they are used because of low demand. The country is trying to overcome vaccine hesitancy by reaching out to communities through local religious and civil society groups, said Muluken Yohannes. He is a senior adviser to Ethiopia's health ministry.
"Currently, developed countries ... have satisfied their vaccine needs. As a result, they are pushing leftover vaccines ... to developing countries,” he said. But he added that the best time to deliver these vaccines has already passed.
I’m Jonathan Evans. And I’m Ashley Thompson.
Maggie Fick and Edward Mcallister reported on this story for the Reuters news service. Jonathan Evans adapted this story for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.
Words in This Story
refrigerator – n. a device or room that is used to keep things such as food and drinks cold
mobile – adj. capable of moving or being moved about readily
distribution – n. the act of giving or delivering something to people
expiration – n. the fact of coming to an end or no longer being valid after a period of time; the fact of expiring
rumors – n. information or a stories passed from person to person but has not been proven to be true