By Doreen Ajiambo, Damian Avevor, Derrick Silimina, Catholic News Service
ACCRA, Ghana (CNS) — Elijah Nayoo received his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in Akrofu, a town some 84 miles northeast of this country’s capital. His decision to get vaccinated followed a massive education and awareness campaign by religious sisters that encouraged him and thousands of others to get vaccinated against the virus.
Nayoo received the vaccine at Mater Ecclesiae Hospital in Akrofu, run by the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church.
Before, Nayoo believed that the vaccine was unsafe and had severe side effects on human bodies, and he told Global Sisters Report he vowed never to take “the jab,” as it is referred to in many African countries.
“I couldn’t believe that one day I would receive the COVID-19 vaccine, because I have always had a negative perception about the vaccines,” said the 36-year-old father of two, who works as an accountant in Accra. He got his first dose at the end of January.
Religious sisters in the West African nation of more than 31 million people have been working hard to debunk COVID-19 vaccine myths that are rampant, ranging from denial that the virus exists to various false side effects. As of Feb. 16, just over 15% of the country’s population was fully vaccinated, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University.
“I am thankful to the sisters for their key intervention toward containing the pandemic,” said Nayoo, explaining that through the education he received from the sisters, he has been able to speak to his family members and friends to take their jabs, which they have willingly received without any fear or panic. “The campaign messages changed my mind, and that of other people, to avail themselves for the vaccine.”
Sister Lucy Hometowu, superior general of the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church, said vaccine myths in Ghana and other African countries had led many citizens to forego vaccinations as virus cases and deaths are rising fast in the continent amid a fourth wave of infections.
“We have undertaken educative campaigns to demystify the myth surrounding the vaccines,” said Sister Hometowu, who is also an obstetrician and gynecologist.
She said when the sisters launched the Catholic Sisters COVID-19 Vaccine Ambassadors Campaign, people were reluctant to get the vaccine, despite the government’s efforts to ensure there were enough doses in the country.
The campaign, led by the Conference of Major Superiors of Religious in Ghana in collaboration with the Vatican COVID-19 Commission, was to create awareness, educate, sensitize and undertake advocacy on vaccine safety and adherence to the protocols. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, a U.S. charitable foundation and major funder of Global Sisters Report, sponsors the initiative.
Sister Hometowu said nuns all over the country were using the Vatican toolkit of consistent and factual communication strategies for the campaigns to “combat misinformation and disinformation related to COVID-19 and ensure accurate information is distributed about lifesaving vaccines.”
The vaccination education effort by Catholic sisters in Ghana started at the same time in Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. The program has since been expanded to other countries, including India, Tanzania and Congo.
Thousands of people have availed themselves at various centers run by the sisters to receive the vaccine and avoid contracting the deadly virus, said Sister Jane Wakahiu, associate vice president of program operations and head of the Catholic Sisters program at the Hilton Foundation.
“The project has been very successful. Thousands of people have accepted taking vaccines, because they have seen religious sisters themselves taking the vaccines, and nothing bad happened to them, which is a success for me,” said Sister Wakahiu, a member of the Little Sisters of St. Francis.
She said the foundation allocated $10 million to the program so that sisters working in health facilities could learn about COVID-19 and vaccines and disseminate the same message to the communities they serve. The campaigns involved sisters going to homes of vulnerable people, slums, rural communities and market centers, and the mobilization of community leaders, churches and mass media.
In Ghana, for example, between Dec. 18 and Jan. 14, sisters convinced more than 1,700 people to get the vaccine. Ghana has administered over 12 million doses of coronavirus vaccines so far.
“Through the education and advocacy by the sisters, the people had a change of mind and were vaccinated,” said Sister Mary Consolata Ntenye of the Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church, who works with Sister Hometowu. “The government, politicians and health professionals in Ghana have put in much effort and resources in procuring these vaccines for the nation, and as citizens, it’s our civic duty to get vaccinated to protect ourselves and others, our families, friends, loved ones, coworkers and above all to bring an end to the pandemic in the world.”
In Zambia, the program is administered under the auspices of the Zambia Association of Sisterhoods. The southern African country of over 18 million people has administered about 2.5 million doses of COVID vaccines so far, with about 9.8% of the population fully vaccinated.
Sister Astridah Banda, a member of Dominican Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, said many people had been hesitant to take the vaccine because of a lack of adequate information on the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.
Sister Banda, a social worker by profession, ran a radio show to share health information about the pandemic and dispel vaccine myths.
In Kenya, sisters from the Association of Sisterhoods of Kenya have been raising public awareness and fighting myths around COVID-19 vaccines through radio broadcasts, presentations, asking priests to include information during Masses, and the distribution of printed materials to reach around 5 million people. The association has worked through 80 sister-run health facilities with 240 sisters across the country.
The East African nation of nearly 54 million people has administered more than 15.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, and 13.5% of the population is fully vaccinated.
“The vaccine uptake has increased in our hospitals,” said Sister Regina Nthenya Ndambuki, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Mombasa, who is also a nurse and a psychological counselor. “Before, some of our health care (facilities) could only vaccinate 10 people a day, but nowadays the number has gone up to 50 to 70 in a day.”