With more than 90 million people spread across some 2.3 million square kilometres, the challenge in rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine in the Democratic Republic of Congo is clear. But reaching people with timely information about vaccinations in a country where most of the population doesn’t have ready access to the internet has required some creative thinking – and the use of more accessible technology.
The sheer size of the country – one of Africa’s largest – isn’t the only barrier to rolling out the vaccine. Chronic poverty, limited essential service infrastructure, disease outbreaks, recurrent armed conflict, massive displacement and the lack of a steady supply of vaccine doses has meant that less than 1 per cent of the population was vaccinated by mid-November 2021.
Even as the supply of COVID-19 vaccines to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has increased through the COVAX Facility – a global partnership designed to achieve vaccine equity – getting timely information to people about where they can receive the vaccine has been a challenge. With that in mind, UNICEF and partners have launched an SMS pre-registration system to support the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.
A nurse administers a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in April 2021.
Around half of Congolese own a mobile phone, meaning SMS provides a flexible and timely way of reaching the population. As part of the SMS drive, and in collaboration with three mobile network operators – Orange, Vodacom and Africell – free messages encouraging vaccination registration were sent out to around 16 million people across 15 priority provinces.
“We’re trying to use SMS to connect vaccines to communities and provide families with the information they need to make the right decisions for themselves and their loved ones,” says Sophie Chavanel, Chief of Communication for Development, UNICEF DRC.
So far, so good
Early results have been positive – in less than four weeks, more than 195,000 people had accessed the registration platform and around 54,000 people had registered for a COVID-19 vaccination.
To access the pre-registration platform, users need to text INFO to a free number. Users are then asked to select one of five local languages in DRC and have the option to register themselves or register on behalf of someone. They are then prompted to provide some basic information, including gender, age and location. This information also helps the Government to prioritize delivery to areas where there is strong interest in getting vaccination, which ensures vaccines can be administered before they expire.
As vaccines become available in communities, those who have signed up are sent a list of vaccination centres. The platform also allows communities to provide feedback about their experience at the vaccination centres, which helps UNICEF to monitor the campaign in real-time.
“Our objective is to enable 50 million Congolese to receive the vaccine by the end of 2022 and thus be better protected against the disease,” says Expanded Program on Immunization Director Elisabeth Mukamba. “This innovative SMS pre-registration initiative is welcome and allows us to communicate more quickly and effectively, even in the most remote communities.”
A member of a Community Action Cell speaks to a woman outside her home in Kinshasa about the COVID-19 vaccine.
Keeping it simple
Tansia Mube Justin is a social mobilizer and member of a group called Community Animation Cell. These groups, usually consisting of 8 to 12 volunteers, are elected by a representative of the local community and are responsible for visiting families on a regular basis to share information on essential family practices. During the pandemic, they have also played an important role in monitoring communities for information around COVID-19, establishing dialogues with communities and providing a feedback mechanism.
“Pre-registering by SMS is free and really easy. It has a big advantage because it allows you to see the vaccination sites closest to your home,” Tansia says after having received the vaccine. “As soon as I left the vaccination site, I encouraged people who wanted to be vaccinated to pre-register by SMS and helped others who couldn’t register themselves.”
Aïchatou Cissé, the Senior Country Manager at Gavi, which together with the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations co-leads the COVAX Facility, agrees the use of SMS is playing an important role in ensuring as many people as possible can receive the vaccine.
“The use of technology, including SMS, to facilitate access to vaccination information enhances quick and greater reach by overcoming practical barriers to information,” Aïchatou says . And it’s also helping ensure fair and equitable access to the vaccine, she says, by “building trust and acceptance for the COVID-19 vaccination.”