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Rumours fuelled by TV, shock of an actor’s death: how an awareness drive fought back in Kerala

As part of a concerted drive to check the spread of Covid in far-flung areas, the health department is taking vaccines to areas such as Attappadi, where 40 per cent of the population belongs to tribal groups. As of June 10, 79.22 per cent of the targeted population in Attappadi had been vaccinated.

Written by Shaju Philip |
Updated: June 13, 2021 7:03:49 am
‘If I get fever, who will care for my goats?’ was one query officials met. (Photo; Shaju Philip)

5.30 pm at Vengakadavu ooru in Palakkad district’s Attappadi, Kerala’s only tribal block, Dr Mohamed Musthafa and his team of healthcare workers are waiting at the anganwadi building for men and women above 45 to turn up for their Covid-19 vaccinations.

‘Tribal promoter’ P Rajan calls out a few names. Nobody turns up. The vaccination team — a doctor, two nurses, a health inspector and the tribal promoter — decides to walk up a concrete road flanked by small houses with brick-tiled roofs.

The team knocks on a few doors. Some heads peep out, and a health worker announces, “What are your ages? All those above 45, come out with your Aadhaar cards. You are getting vaccines.”

As some come out, diffidently clutching their dog-eared Aadhaar cards, the health team gets into their jeep and drives to the heart of the settlement.

Explained

Addressing hesitancy

Manipur’s kamjong district, which has so far administered 4,561 doses, gave 591 of them between May 22 and May 28; and just 95 between May 29 and June 24 — reflective of the problems officials are up against as they fan out across the country. Anticipating the same, the Centre had directed states to identify vaccine-hesitant areas before the rollout of the drive. The Health Ministry has also underlined that the mobilisation should be contextualised to community requirements and address state-specific variations such as tribal-non tribal and hard-to-reach pockets. On January 25, more than a week after the rollout of the vaccination drive, a meeting on communication strategy to address vaccine hesitancy was convened and the strategy was shared with directors of National Health Missions of all states. At the block level, the strategy includes community meetings and home visits. States have been asked to use local influencers, including tribal leaders, to dispel fears.

As part of a concerted drive to check the spread of Covid in far-flung areas, the health department is taking vaccines to areas such as Attappadi, where 40 per cent of the population belongs to tribal groups. As of June 10, 79.22 per cent of the targeted population in Attappadi had been vaccinated.

There are 85 families belonging to the Erula tribe in Vengakadavu, in Sholayur panchayat. The colony has reported two Covid-19 deaths, including that of the ooru moopan (tribal chief), and 63 positive cases, most of them in the second wave of the pandemic.

Though vaccination was thrown open to the general population from March 1, it was only on June 10 that the Vengakadavu settlement got the first dose.

Says Dr Mohamed, medical officer at the Sholayur Primary Health Centre, “We conduct vaccinations in the evening because during the daytime, most of the tribals are usually away from the hamlets. They take their goats or cows out for grazing in the morning and return only in the evening. We don’t inform them in advance because then they tend to stay away from their homes.’’

With most homes equipped with television sets, tribals in Attappadi are updated on Covid news through Malayalam and Tamil news channels. But sometimes, TV also brings bad news — and unfounded fears. In Vengakadavu, news of Tamil actor Vivek’s death in Chennai, reportedly a day after his vaccination, fuelled some of these fears.

Rajan, the tribal promoter whose job is to act as a bridge between the government and the tribals, says they had to work hard to dispel rumours of deaths linked to the vaccine. “We have been holding awareness campaigns. Though they were initially reluctant, things got better when some of them agreed to take the shots. They also changed their opinion after the two Covid deaths in the colony,’’ he said.

The hesitancy is also linked to a fear of adverse reactions from the vaccine. Says Nanjan, a 47-year-old, “If I get fever after vaccination, who will take care of my goats?’’

Dr Mohamed says the fear of loss of earning is a genuine one. “Also, if someone develops fever, that may trigger unnecessary fear among the other tribals. So we give a paracetamol tablet to everyone,’’ he said.

Attappadi Tribal Health Nodal Officer Dr Prabhu Das says the vaccination drive for those above 45 has made remarkable progress. Puthur panchayat in Attappadi, for instance, has achieved 100 per cent vaccination for those above 45.

It’s now 8 pm and the health team prepares to leave after vaccinating 30 people in the colony. There are 29 more in the 45+ category in the colony who are yet to be vaccinated.

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