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Thaba Bosiu – Ask Mthimkhulu Mosefa about Covid-19 vaccines and he will give you a detailed medical lecture like a doctor.

“I wish Basotho would understand that the vaccine is not a pathogen that makes us sick,” says 16-year-old Mosefa, a Form E student at Ikaheng High School.

“People who get vaccinated get better quicker because their bodies react faster. The vaccine is like a shield. Those vaccinated can still get Covid-19 but they don’t become severely ill,” he says.

“We all wish we could go back to a time when we were not wearing these masks. But for that to happen, we all have to vaccinate to protect ourselves against the disease,” he says.

Mosefa’s teachers describe him as a brilliant and eloquent student. It’s therefore not surprising that his knowledge of the Covid-19 vaccine is exceptional.

But his fellow students are not far behind in their understanding of Covid-19 and its vaccines. Most might not put it as fluently as Mosefa but they understand how vaccines work and why they are important in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yet it wasn’t always like this. Obert Theko, the acting principal of Ikaheng High School, describes a time when most students were hostile to vaccines.

“Most of them didn’t want to be vaccinated because they feared that it would make them sick or it was evil,” Theko says.

“They had fallen victim to the misconceptions and myths that had been spread about the disease and vaccines.”

Those perceptions have however changed dramatically. Theko says nearly all the Ikaheng High School students have been vaccinated.

He attributes the change in attitude and the increase in the number of vaccinated students to an awareness campaign conducted by the Lesotho Red Cross Society Lesotho (LRCL) with help from the World Health Organization (WHO) through the Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) Project.

Funded by the Canadian government, the ACT-A project is a global collaboration to accelerate development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines.

Its goal is to speed up an end to the pandemic by supporting the development and equitable distribution of the tests, treatments and vaccines to reduce mortality and severe disease.

The Lesotho Red Cross Society (LRCS) was one of the four non-state organisations that received funding under the project. The LRCS used the ACT-A funding to increase awareness and acceptance of COVID 19 vaccination in Berea, Maseru and Mohale’s Hoek.

Moluoane Ramakhula, the LRCS’s Health and social services coordinator, says this was done through community engagement and risk communications about issues surrounding the Covid-19 vaccine.

“The overriding mission was to debunk the myths about vaccines and increase the uptake of vaccines in those districts,” Ramakhula says.

She says the education campaign targeted four health facilities whose catchment areas had a low uptake of the vaccine. The first phase of the project focused on health workers, people with comorbidities and those over 60.

The second targeted teachers, students over 16, law enforcement officers, correctional officers, prisoners, miners, textile workers and front office Home Affairs officials. The third phase zeroed in on people over 16 who had not been vaccinated in the two initial phases.

The awareness campaigns were conducted through village gatherings and door-to-door visits. ’Mannana Makoanyane, a teacher at Ikaheng High School, says there was a shift in perception among her colleagues at the LCRL’s workshop held at the school.

“We took the message to our students and the reaction was extremely positive. Teachers were getting vaccinated and encouraging their students to do the same,” Makoanyane says.

Busa Qhala, a registered Nurse Midwife at LRCL’s clinic in Thaba Bosiu, says there was a huge increase in vaccinations soon after the awareness campaign. Qhala has a box full of vaccination cards in his office to prove the impact of the campaign.

“All these cards belong to people who got vaccinated during and after the awareness campaign,” he says as he opens the box.

The clinic serves 24 villages, 14 high schools and seven primary schools in Thaba Bosiu. Qhala says 94 percent of high school students have been vaccinated since the campaign.

“It is all thanks to that campaign. Before that we were struggling to persuade people to be vaccinated because of the perception that vaccines were associated with Satanism or would make people sick,” Qhala says.

As a nurse, Qhala witnessed how misconceptions, fake information and myths were sabotaging the fight against the pandemic. As the Covid-19 pandemic gripped Lesotho, the misinformation and myths associated with it spread like veld fire.

Health workers, the foot soldiers in the fight against the pandemic, were fighting on two fronts: saving Covid-19 patients and trying to educate the public about the disease. The disinformation and myths intensified when vaccines were introduced.

Even before the first doses could reach Lesotho’s shores the public was persistently bombarded with negative information, most of which was based on fear, ignorance and religious fanaticism. The misinformation resulted in a general apathy and hostility to vaccines.

It did not help that the myths were being spread through social media, where most people are now getting their news and information. What made the situation worse was that even health workers, who were supposed to lead the vaccination campaign, were also reluctant to vaccinate.

Community leaders like chiefs, politicians and religious leaders were also either sceptical or outrightly hostile to vaccines. Some actively advocated against the vaccine. Qhala says the campaign came at a time when they would spend a day without vaccinating anyone.

“We are now vaccinating dozens every day. Some are coming for boosters too.”

Statistics show the impact of the awareness campaign. The LRCL’s report on the project says “compared to the previous month the level of understanding has increased among the participants across the three districts”. The report says although there are still some pockets of hesitancy, data reveals the majority of participants in the awareness campaigns have been vaccinated.

“This was assessed with the participants’ understanding of how the vaccine protects the body,” the report says.

“97% of the respondents are of a view that the vaccine both keeps the person from being severely ill and creates an immune response to the virus.”
People like Mosefa have become change agents.

“My father, a policeman, got vaccinated after I did. The same applies to my family members. They could see that the vaccine is not dangerous,” Mosefa says.

Staff Reporter

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