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A Letter From Malgaon village, Shahade taluka, Maharashtra: The shots in the dark

🔴 Vaccine hesitancy, loadshedding, busy farmers, long distances — vaccinators are up against many odds in Maharashtra’s Nandurbar. But they are hoping to pull the tribal district up from its trailing numbers

Written by Rupsa Chakraborty | Mumbai |
Updated: January 23, 2022 8:02:52 am
Covid, Covid-19, Covid vaccine, Covid-19 vaccine, vaccination, jabs, shots, coronavirus, coronavirus vaccine, Mumbai news, Mumbai city news, Mumbai, Maharashtra, Maharashtra government, India news, Indian Express News Service, Express News Service, Express News, Indian Express India NewsVaccinations after sunset, under solar lights and mobile torches. (Express)

Nearly 400 km north of Mumbai, at Malgaon village in Nandurbar’s Shahade taluka, amidst the dark of dusk and a loadshedding, four healthcare workers stand still with the flashlights of their mobile phones aimed at the left arm of a villager, as one of them carefully administers the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine to a 57-year-old woman.

Till a few days ago, that was the routine of about 150 vaccinators, making their way through the tribal-dominated district late evenings, which is the only time they could get villagers, who were away at their fields during the day. Nandurbar ranks the lowest in vaccination numbers in Maharashtra, and the late hour and the dark only add to the uphill struggle officials are facing to convince villagers that getting the shot is good for them.

Dr Mahendra Chavan, District Health Officer, Nandurbar, says: “Due to the frequent load sheddings, the vaccinators carry flashlights and torchlights too in their vaccination SOS kits. Sometimes, we gather villagers under solar lights and vaccinate them.”

Recently, the staff was further strained as many of them caught Covid. So, for now, the evening vaccination drive has been stalled.

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Nandurbar has the highest concentration of tribals in Maharashtra, comprising more than 69% of its population of 16.48 lakh. Nearly 90% of the people live in rural areas. As of January 20, only 44% of its 14.20 lakh people above the age of 18 were fully immunised; nearly three-fourth (72.64%) had got only one dose. In comparison, the state average is 90% for the first dose among 18 and above, and 64.88% for both. In the 15-17 age group for which vaccination began on January 3, 33.91% of those eligible have got their shots in Nandurbar, against the state’s average of 45%.

Like in the rest of the country and state, Covid numbers have been rising in this district. While Nandurbar had six active cases on January 1, this had gone up to 1,542 by January 20. Till January 20, the district had recorded 948 deaths. On Thursday, three more Covid-19 patients succumbed.

“Until the first week of January, we were recording only 1-3 cases daily, which has now surged to 300 cases. So, we have to boost vaccination, which helps in containing severity among patients,” says Dr Pradip Awate, state surveillance officer.

One of the biggest hurdles for vaccinators, who include ASHA and anganwadi workers, is the 12-15 km they need to travel to reach the hamlets through hilly patches in Akkalkuwa and Tadole talukas.

“We carry the vaccination bag with us (that helps keep the vials at the desired temperature). When the tribals see us with the blue bags, they flee. They whistle to others too as a sign of warning,” says Sujata Dhumal, an ASHA worker in Chandpur village.

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With Internet patchy in the district, vaccinators have to travel 6-7 km to even record beneficiaries’ data on the Co-WIN portal.

The Health Department has tied up with local religious leaders to convince the tribals and build faith, and they often accompany the vaccinators.

Parvathi Padvi, an auxiliary nurse, recalls an incident of October when a family of five that she was trying to convince to get inoculated started cursing her, forcing her to leave. The family believed the vaccine would leave their arms infected, leading to amputation. In December 2021, the family finally got inoculated after a local priest took his second dose in front of the villagers.

“It is normal to get fever and body ache after vaccination. Sometimes, the vaccinated arms get swollen for 24 hours, which makes the villagers scared. Then the rumours start spreading that it’s unhealthy,” says Padvi.

The other immunisation drives for childhood infections in the district have been going on smoothly, indicating that it is the newness of the Covid vaccines and the fact that they cover adults which is behind the hesitancy.

Former nodal officer of the district for the vaccination programme, Ashok Pataet, says: “The vaccination drives for newborns have been going on for years, so the sensitisation is high among people, especially mothers. The success rate is above 90%.”

Officials say it is the elderly who are most petrified of the Covid vaccines. “They believe the vaccines are poisonous,” Padvi says.

Given the problems in door-to-door vaccination, officials say it is even rarer to get villagers to turn up for drives at healthcare centres, which are often located miles away. “When Covid vaccination started in January 2021, we had only 10 centres. Now, there are over 130. We would get villagers earlier in tempos to these sites,” says Dr Chavan.

Officials believe that some of the beneficiaries may have crossed over to primary health centres in bordering Gujarat for their shots. “Four out of six blocks in Nandurbar share borders with Gujarat. We are reconciling the data from the blocks,” Chavan says.

The vaccinators are also holding camps in villages now to convince children to come forward for shots. “Parents who refuse have to be counselled,” says Chavan.

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