BRIDGETOWN, Barbados – The Caribbean will be the focus of a new initiative aimed at promoting COVID-19 vaccine uptake among healthcare workers and most at-risk populations.
This collaborative effort by the Caribbean Development Bank (CDB), Global Affairs Canada and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) promises to be a community driven, inclusive, culturally-responsive and evidence-informed approach to addressing vaccine hesitancy, in the face of pandemic fatigue, misinformation and the relaxation of pandemic protection protocols across the region.
“This project will apply good practice and draw on lessons learnt regarding communications and engagement in pandemics to address vaccine hesitancy,” said the director of the projects department at the CDB, Daniel Best. “Capacity building of health care workers, leaders and influencers to deliver compelling, evidence-based communication on the COVID-19 vaccine, could aid efforts to increase uptake,” he further explained.
CDB and Global Affairs Canada are two of the most recent international partners who have joined forces with PAHO to develop, fund and mobilise resources to promote the uptake of and access to COVID-19 vaccines in the Caribbean region.
PAHO’s ongoing collaborative interventions with ministries of health, civil society organisations, partners, and donors have successfully reached 63 percent of the eligible public with lifesaving COVID vaccines. However, vaccine coverages in Caribbean countries and territories vary widely, from 1-90 percent. In fact, out of 13 countries and territories in the Americas, ten did not yet reach the WHO’s goal of 40 percent immunisation coverage by the end of 2021. Consequently, the Caribbean is especially vulnerable to ongoing COVID-19 transmission.
“This event marks a pivotal milestone in the successful implementation of the communications intervention. We are at a critical juncture in the region in the fight against COVID as all restrictions are being removed and as all economies are reopening a communications framework that considers the socio cultural, economic and psychological factors of the region must be implemented. This project that we are signing today reflects these features and I think bodes well for the achievement of our outcomes,” division chief, social sector division CDB, Deidre Clarendon, reiterated.
She commented that combatting hesitancy is critical, particularly with the presence of the more transmissible Omicron COVID-19 variant, given the link between vaccine uptake and the reduction of the risk of serious illness, hospitalisation and death resulting from COVID-19. Her remarks are further justified through findings of a recent study by PAHO and UNICEF, which indicated that 51 percent of vaccine hesitant people in the Eastern Caribbean were open to changing their minds after seeing more scientific and medical information.
“Vaccines are one of humanity’s most powerful tools and have been around since the 1800s. They are instrumental in preventing and reducing the burden of diseases like polio, measles, tetanus and now – COVID-19. Addressing vaccine hesitancy at this stage of the pandemic is crucial. As such, Canada is proud to support this risk communication and community engagement for COVID-19 vaccine uptake in the Caribbean project in partnership with PAHO and the Caribbean Development Bank,” Jennifer Heys, head of cooperation, Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean, Global Affairs Canada stated.
Last year, Canada announced a contribution of $50 million to PAHO in support of its critical work towards readiness and access to COVID-19 vaccines for vulnerable populations. This contribution also includes targeted support of at least $6 million to the Caribbean, given the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic on small island developing states. This is complemented by another $4.2 million initiative with PAHO which has been working to support disaster preparedness in the health sector for Caribbean countries, as well as providing funding to combat COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
Dean Chambliss, sub-regional program director, PAHO referred to misinformation as one of the reasons why vaccine uptake has been reduced in the region. He expressed further concern about low levels of risk perception, as observably, some people no longer see COVID-19 as a risk.
“All phases of this pandemic have been difficult, but we find ourselves at an interesting juncture – we have a situation not just in the Caribbean, but the broader Americas – where the general public and indeed healthcare workers are tired of the pandemic, and they feel like it’s time to move on,” said Chambliss. “At the same time, for any vaccine-preventable disease, you have to have a level of vaccination coverage in the general population that allows us to truly make that move – to be able to live with the disease on an ongoing basis” he added.
Chambliss additionally offered that dialogue, trust-building and outreach are key tools that must be engaged to promote vaccine uptake and ultimately save lives. Launched on February 24, 2022, the collaborative initiative with the CDB, Global Affairs Canada and PAHO will be designed to do just that.
Combined with evidence-informed knowledge alongside culturally relevant and current understandings about perceptions of COVID-19 vaccines, this project is timely as our region aims to healthfully return to a state of post pandemic normalcy. This initiative will be rolled out within the next few months and implemented until the end of 2022.