Emergency Health

The project aims to reduce illness and death caused by COVID-19

The IFRC is carrying out extensive COVID-19 vaccination operations in six African countries, supported by the EU.


The early bird

Standing tall, Pauline Ebei is the first person in the morning at the vaccination point at Kiwanja village located in Isiolo, north-eastern Kenya. The vaccination point is located under a tree near the yard of the village school.

Ebei takes her ID out of a plastic bag and hands it to the vaccination point worker. She is in a serious mood as she is about to receive her first COVID-19 vaccination.

Photo Credits: Aapo Huhta/Finnish Red Cross

“I heard from a neighbour that vaccinations are given here today, and while I was on my way to the market, I decided to come. I don’t know much about the disease, but I know that it spreads easily and is a new illness. That is why I decided to come,” she recounts.

Pauline Ebei is 71 years old and lives together with her husband, her daughter and her daughter’s four children. The family makes their living from keeping cows and sheep. Pauline is planning to urge her husband and daughter to get vaccinated when she returns home.


To take or not to take the vaccine?

Veronica Nasuru is also among the first people to get vaccinated. She has had COVID-19 and was hospitalised. She knows how severe the disease is and wants to get vaccinated. She heard about the vaccination opportunity on the radio. She has four children and a husband. She does not believe that her husband will get vaccinated, as he is afraid of dying from it.

Veronica’s husband is an example of how vaccine hesitancy cripples COVID-19 vaccination uptake among communities. By 24 February 2022, about 24 per cent of Kenya’s population have been fully vaccinated, compared to Africa’s 12 per cent. Prejudices and misconceptions abound. The most common belief is that the new vaccine is a conspiracy to regulate birth rates in Africa.

Kenya plans to administer at least 20 million vaccine doses between January and June 2022 to achieve its mid-year targets and has set specific targets for each of its 47 county governments with an objective of ensuring the administration of vaccine doses according to their population proportions. But vaccine hesitancy is slowing down uptake, especially in rural and hard-to-reach areas.


Vaccines for millions of people

Supported by the EU, the Red Cross has begun extensive COVID-19 vaccination projects, in six African countries: Kenya, Somalia, Guinea, Madagascar, Malawi, and Mozambique. Over 10 million people, across all six countries, will benefit from the participatory EU COVID-19 vaccination drives. In Kenya, this is over 3.5 million people in 9 counties; including over 286,000 people with disabilities and more than 180,000 displaced people who are vulnerable and in hard-to-reach areas. This means reaching the last mile; ensuring everyone has access to vaccines regardless of status, location.

Photo Credits: Aapo Huhta/Finnish Red Cross


Mathias Eick, the spokesperson for the EU’s humanitarian operations in Nairobi, believes that this objective will also be reached with the methods selected.

“The EU is spending a hundred million euros on rural vaccination campaign in Africa, including Kenya,” he says.

Information provision and education play an important part in debunking COVID-19 misinformation that is rampant in rural areas. Increasing sensitization and awareness campaigns in communities through local leaders ensure people in hard-to-reach areas are able to gain the trust of health care providers and the government.

Imams dismantling prejudices

About 13 per cent of Isiolo County has been fully vaccinated while the capital city, Nairobi is at 45 per cent, more than triple the vaccination rate.

“The local communities are very conservative. We’re trying to influence village elders, religious leaders, and other influential people. Personally, I’ve been on the radio to talk about the importance of vaccination and respond to rumours and prejudices,” says Mary Kariuki, a Kenya Red Cross staff at the Isiolo County Branch office.

Photo Credits: Aapo Huhta/Finnish Red Cross

The secretary for the council of local imams, Sheikh Diba Nura Abdula, is a key influencer in Isiolo County. His own mosque alone is visited by hundreds of people praying every day. Almost half of the population in the area are Muslims. The sheikh estimates the number to be around 150,000 people.

“I’m one of the influencers, and I’ve been trained to tell my own community about the importance of getting vaccinated. I work hard in my community to promote it. Very many people are now convinced that the vaccination doesn’t have any side effects or purposes other than combating COVID-19,” the sheikh says.

Photo Credits: Aapo Huhta/Finnish Red Cross

Religious leaders are turning to their parishes, telling them that as responsible leaders, they would never urge any parish members to do anything dangerous, and neither does the Kenyan government. However, the sheikh’s parish has been influenced the most by the example of he himself getting vaccinated.

“I got vaccinated as a role model and because I know that the disease is dangerous. I have to travel all over the country due to my work, and on the other hand, I meet a lot of people at prayer gatherings. I don’t want to fall ill or make anyone else ill. I’ve seen numerous people contract the virus and die,” the sheikh concludes.

He also told people about his own vaccination immediately in the parish’s WhatsApp group, where his post received plenty of visibility and comments.

The Kenya Red Cross is working with leaders, influencers, community groups, and networks to identify and support local, practical solutions to preventing the spread of infection and promote vaccine confidence within the community.


Matatu drivers get the vaccine

The drivers of local public transport vehicles, i.e., minibuses called ‘matatu,’ buses and motorcycle taxis called ‘boda boda,’ are also involved in the COVID-19 vaccination campaign by Kenya Red Cross funded by the EU. They are organised in their own associations, providing a convenient channel for spreading education. Vaccination campaigns have been held for drivers, and three quarters of all drivers are estimated to be vaccinated already.

“We’re constantly on the move, travelling between cities. That makes it important for us to be vaccinated,” says Stephen Gitare Wanjinu.

Photo Credits: Aapo Huhta/Finnish Red Cross


He is a ‘matatu’ driver, driving primarily from Isiolo to Nairobi, but also to Nakuru and Marsabit.

“I know that the vaccination doesn’t mean that I’m 100% safe. As many passengers as possible must also be vaccinated,” he continues.


Cold chain equipment = viable vaccines

A white, Red Cross tent has been erected in the yard of the hospital of Kabarnet, the capital of Isiolo’s neighbouring county of Baringo, and people are already waiting for the first vaccinations of the morning. The vaccines for the entire area are stored in the facilities of the hospital.


Photo Credits: Aapo Huhta/Finnish Red Cross


Nurse Martha Miningwo (infront) and a student nurse, Vallary Chesire show freezers filled with vaccines at Kabarnet Referal Hospital. There are vaccines from four different manufacturers. Coolers filled with ice cubes keep the vaccines viable even when transported to distant vaccination points.


Photo Credits: Aapo Huhta/Finnish Red Cross

Vaccine expiry is a concern in countries where there are high vaccine hesitancy rates and low vaccine administration capacity. The short shelf lives of vaccines compounded with the late arrival of donated vaccines to Africa causes the wastage of vaccines and resources associated with delivery and distribution. The Red Cross and the EU through this initiative seek to improve vaccine supply chain management through the provision of cold chain equipment for storing the vaccine. This ensures timely delivery of vaccines, minimizes wastage, facilitates equitable access, and promotes trust in communities.

In Baringo County, Kenya the cold chain equipment, funded by the EU, will be set up in health centres that are in remote areas of the county. A major challenge facing the county is its vastness and the distance between health centres. Putting up the cold chain equipment in the remote health centres ensures access to the most vulnerable and often nomadic communities.


Radio waves for vaccine confidence

Everyone agrees that success in the vaccination campaign relies on communication. As such, local radio stations have also been recruited to spread the word about the importance of getting vaccinated.

In Kabarnet, the campaign is supported by the Alpha radio station. The station is private, but its programming is aimed deliberately at the communities of the area, with whom the station also collaborates often.


Photo Credits: Aapo Huhta/Finnish Red Cross


“The key messages have to do with talking about the importance of vaccinations and increasing awareness regarding the coronavirus and ways to combat it. Wednesdays are reserved for a health theme. In that programme slot, we talk about the coronavirus in three languages: English, Swahili and the Maa language of the Ilchamus people,” says the head of the radio station Samuel Nyachiro.

The station’s transmitter is placed on a hill, ensuring a range of up to 120 kilometres with up to 300,000 listeners tuning in.

Red Cross and Red Crescent teams, in collaboration with the EU, remain on the frontline of the response to COVID-19 across Africa. A coordinated effort among partners and stakeholders ensures that everyone has a chance at getting the COVID-19 vaccine

Text: Hilkka Hyrkkö/Finnish Red Cross

Additional edits: Susan Mbalu

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