GAUHATI, India (AP) – The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan fully immunized 90% of its eligible adult population in just seven days, its health ministry said on Tuesday.
The small country, wedged between India and China and home to nearly 800,000 people, began distributing second doses on July 20 in a mass campaign that was hailed by UNICEF as “arguably the fastest vaccination campaign to run during a pandemic ”.
In April, Bhutan grabbed the headlines when its government said it had inoculated about the same percentage of eligible adults with the first dose in less than two weeks after India donated 550,000 injections. AstraZeneca vaccine.
But the country faced a shortage for months after India, a major supplier of AstraZeneca shot, halted exports as it rushed to meet growing demand in the country as infections were increasing.
Bhutan was able to get back on the road last week after half a million doses of Moderna vaccine arrived from the United States as a donation under the UN-backed COVAX program, an initiative designed to donate countries have access to coronavirus vaccines regardless of their wealth.
Some 5,000 Pfizer injections have also been facilitated by COVAX, which is co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation.
It has also received over 400,000 images from AstraZeneca from Denmark, Croatia and Bulgaria in the past two weeks.
“Our goal is to achieve collective immunity among our population as soon as possible to avoid a major public health crisis,” Dechen Wangmo, Minister of Health of Bhutan, told The Associated Press.
Many Western countries with far more resources have yet to immunize such a high rate of eligible adults.
Health experts say Bhutan’s small population has helped, but the country has also benefited from strong and effective messages from senior officials and an established cold chain storage system.
More than 3,000 health workers participated and 1,200 immunization centers across the country helped ensure that vaccines reached all eligible adults. In some cases, health workers walked for days through landslides and torrential rains to reach extremely remote villages on top of rugged mountains to administer doses to those who could not make it to a center, said Dr Sonam Wangchuk, a member of the Bhutan immunization task force.
“Vaccination is the backbone of Bhutan’s health initiative,” he said.
The government of Bhutan is also run by doctors. The Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Health are all health professionals. And frequent government posts, which directly answer public questions about the coronavirus and vaccinations on Facebook, have also helped tackle citizens’ vaccine hesitation.
“In fact, people are very anxious to come and get vaccinated,” said Dr Wangchuk.
Its prime minister, Lotay Tshering, and his monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, were also early supporters of the vaccine, which allayed fears surrounding the deployment. The king also traveled the country to raise awareness about the vaccination campaign.
Bhutan is the last Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, but it has grown from an absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy.
Another crucial ingredient of the immunization campaign is the country’s vast network of volunteer citizens called “desuups,” said Will Parks, the UNICEF representative for Bhutan. Some 22,000 citizens have volunteered over the past year and a half to raise awareness, dispel misinformation, help with mass screenings and tests and even transport vaccines to the difficult terrain of the country, he said. declared.
Bhutan’s success is an anomaly in South Asia where countries like India and Bangladesh are struggling to increase their immunization rates. Experts say this underlines the importance of rich countries donating vaccines to the developing world and underlines how government and community outreach can have a big impact.
“Maybe this tiny Himalayan kingdom can be a beacon of hope for a region on fire,” Parks said.
Lekhi reported from New Delhi.