A South Sudanese refugee washes clothes  at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in the Northern District of Yumbe, Uganda, on…
FILE - A South Sudanese refugee washes clothes at the Bidibidi refugee settlement in the Northern District of Yumbe, Uganda, Nov. 26, 2017.

YUMBE, NORTHERN UGANDA - Uganda, which hosts nearly 1.5 million refugees and asylum-seekers, began coronavirus vaccinations this week in the camps and settlements.  But vaccine hesitancy among refugees poses a challenge.     

Ugandan authorities have received 964,000 doses of coronavirus vaccine and inoculated 453,000 people as of May 16.   

FILE - Uganda's Minister of Health Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng and other officials greet the country's first consignment of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine provided through the global COVAX initiative, at the airport in Entebbe, March 5, 2021.

Now, the government is extending COVID-19 vaccinations to refugees, most of whom are from South Sudan.  

In Bidibidi settlement, the vaccination team is first targeting older people, age 50 or higher.    

Rebecca Kara, 74, carries her personal documents to head to Swinga Health Centre 3 to get the AstraZeneca vaccine in Yumbe district, northern Uganda. (Halima Athumani/VOA)

To get them to the clinic, the health team is going to door to door.  Moses Lomoro, a village health team member, says face to face interactions helped erase a lot of fears among the elderly.   

“After getting a vaccine, some people have a reaction," he said. "Someone can have a fever and vomiting. So, these rumors have scared some of the community members. And also, other people, they have access to social media and give false information.”   

Before the vaccination, health workers carry out a counselling session in which each recipient reads and signs a consent form.   

South Sudanese elders receive counseling at Swinga Health Centre 111, Yumbe district, northern Uganda, before getting the COVID-19 vaccine. (Halima Athumani/VOA)

The consent form reads, in part: “As with any vaccine, there is no certainty that I will become immune or that I will not experience any adverse events from the vaccine. I voluntarily assume full responsibility for any events that may result due to vaccination.”   

Mary Nyoka, 65, has concerns over the form.   

Mary Nyoka, 65, of South Sudan gets the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at Swinga Health Centre 3 in Bidibidi. settlement, Yumbe district, northern Uganda. (Halima Athumani/VOA)

She says, I have pressure, ulcers and malaria. We are already old enough, are they giving us a vaccine to kill us? She says, so, I’m scared, they are making us sign a consent form.  

Dr. Charles Onek, a medical officer with the International Rescue Committee says the community has had many fears that have affected the vaccination process.   

“People have been wondering, if I get a severe form of reaction and maybe, I succumb to it, or I die. Will I be compensated? So, that answer has never been very clear," he said. "People are talking that if you receive a COVID vaccine, especially for men, you become impotent. No, this has been a myth and we have always been talking about it.”      

In the settlements, the different health centers use what they call, “boda boda talk talk” to pass on messages about coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.  

Balizina Emmy, a clinical officer at Swinga Health Centre III, says they are making progress through these messages.   

“It is kind of challenging, because, it has not been happening with other vaccines. This is somehow special. This is a new thing in the vaccination system. We try to talk to them and explain to them the reason as to why they should consent. More so, because of these side effects,” he said.  

An elderly woman and her daughter leave the Bwama Health Centre III, at Bwama Island – Lake Bunyonyi, in Western Uganda, Apr. 28, 2021, after receiving her COVID-19 vaccination.

Ugandan doctors say they will have to reset their messages to show and convince not just refugees, but even locals that any risks associated with the vaccine are minimal compared to getting COVID-19, which carries the risk of death. 

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