“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.” – Robbie Burns
WARNING: This may be interesting for you if you enjoy observing the trials and tribulations of logistical planning, but otherwise, it might be rather boring. Even the accompanying photographs.
The Ministry of Health’s plan was simple: vaccinate all 14-year-old girls and give them a booster a year later to provide protection against cervical cancer. Repeat annually with each cohort of young girls.
Now, vaccinating infants is easy; their mothers bring them along to our community clinics to be immunised. But how do you access teenage girls? The obvious answer is to vaccinate them in school.
Not all girls go to school, however, especially in rural areas.
And students change schools, moving to different locations, for a better education, often at age 14.
Then Covid-19 arrives and schools close down, completely wrecking your strategy.
“Can you help us boost our coverage, Dr Ian?” asked D, who is in charge of immunisation campaigns at the health centre. I agreed and asked to see what had been accomplished so far.
D handed me six huge registers, in which the teams had recorded the vaccinations, given at six local schools.
“What does this mean?” I asked, pointing to rows of children’s names where the column indicating the date of HPV vaccination was blank.
“I am sure that they have had the vaccine, we just didn’t record it.”
That sounded very odd. If you bother to record the name and village, why wouldn’t you add the date of vaccination. Even if you just put ditto marks in the column.
We did some investigating. It turned out that the vaccinating teams were understaffed, so they asked the teachers to write down the names of all the girls in their classes who were 14. But not all of these girls were at school on the day the vaccination team arrived, or had refused to have the vaccine.
“Did you not know about this, D?” I asked him. “Ah, doc, I didn’t vaccinate at this school.”
“Right, how many 14-year-old girls did you vaccinate last June/July?” I enquired.
D didn’t know exactly, but the nurse in charge said that he had reported 269 to the Ministry.
OK, so how many girls are recorded in the registers as having been vaccinated? He didn’t know, so we copied the information from the registers into an Excel workbook and counted 311.
“Why do you think there is a discrepancy?” D didn’t know and neither did the nurse in charge. “Perhaps you vaccinated 269 schoolgirls and 42 girls who were not attending school?” I suggested.
“How about coming at this problem from a different angle. How many doses of vaccine did you use last year?” I asked. D said that the Ministry of Health had collected all the unused doses in August 2019 at the end of the campaign, so he couldn’t check.
“But that was last year, doc. I am worried about this year,” D said.
“So what is your target?” I asked.
“All the girls we vaccinated last year who are now 15, plus the girls who have turned 14,” he replied.
“What’s your estimate of the numbers?” I asked. D said that the Ministry of Health had worked out how many doses we should have based on some ten-year-old census data uprated by the estimated growth in population.
“So, how many do you think this year?” I asked. D wasn’t sure and wouldn’t hazard a guess.
“Okay, we don’t have precise figures, but is it logical to assume that at least the same number of girls are born each year? We vaccinated 269 or 311 girls who were 14 last year, so we should be aiming to vaccinate that number plus a similar number of girls who turned 14 this year.”
“If you say so, doc.”
“Let’s say about 600. How many doses of vaccine did the Ministry of Health deliver to us?”
“We got 550 this year,” he said after checking the records.
“And how many doses are left?”
“Good, so we are about half way there,” I offered. “How did you manage to vaccinate so many when the schools were closed?”
“The students who are in their examination years are still attending school.”
We looked at the Excel spreadsheet, where 145 15-year-old girls had received their second dose and 88 14-year-old girls had received their first dose, during the past two months.
“So, what can we do now? How do we get to the girls who are not at school?” I asked.
“We can use our community health volunteers to mobilise them,” he said. “Then we can vaccinate them all in one day going from village to village.”
“But students don’t always go to the school nearest to where they live. They try to get into the best schools or they get rejected from other schools. We are lucky to have their villages recorded in the register.”
The prospect of trawling through six registers was daunting until I discovered that D had a database of all the villages in the health centre’s catchment area. There are ten neighbourhood health committees, each with a volunteer health worker. A bit of magic with Excel and we were able to print out a list of all the 15-year-old girls who were eligible for their second dose in each location. We delivered the list to each volunteer health worker. They had 48 hours to locate the girls on their list, plus any 14-year-old girls, and we would be along to vaccinate at a particular time.
Unfortunately, some volunteers were unable to identify any of their target population. Others had tracked down every 15-year-old. They could tell us where the girls had relocated: back to Lusaka, to a good school out of our area, or who had become pregnant. We only managed to vaccinate another 20 girls.
In one village, D said he had a message to the girls who had come for their vaccinations. “During this time of Covid, when the schools are closed, keep yourselves busy. Don’t give in to temptation and go with boys because you don’t have anything better to do.” I looked at the group of girls on the mat and thought that they looked like mature, young women.
I foresee that there will be a big rise in teenage pregnancies in 2021.
We still had hundreds of girls to vaccinate. I asked A, the other health inspector, what we should do. She said, “We should contact the girls.” But how? “Some way.” Yes, but how exactly? It’s no good just saying what you want to happen without a plan to make it happen.
“Give me some time, I will think about it,” said A. But we don’t have time. The Ministry will be taking back the vaccines in August as it assumes we will have successfully completed the campaign by then, regardless of the disruption of covid. I had a plan to use the local radio station to spread the word, but I wanted A to come up with that suggestion, so I could make her take ownership of the problem. With some unsubtle prompting, she thought using the radio station would be a good plan.
“Okay, what would you say on the radio, A?” She wasn’t sure, so I drafted a short statement about preventing the number one cancer affecting women in Zambia, how safe the vaccine was, who should have it, and the dates and locations we would be offering the vaccine over the next few weeks.
D stumbled while reading the statement in English, never mind translating it into Kunda, the local language. I suggested a female voice would go down better for a health message directed at girls and young women. A translated the piece and gave a seamless performance. We drove down to Radio Mhkanya and I sold the story to the station manager. “It will make a great two-minute news article,” I said. He agreed and A went next door to do the interview.
I asked the station manager about the catchment area of the radio and he told me it was about 50km in all directions. I asked D to inform his colleagues in other neighbouring health centres so they could deal with any surge in demand for HPV vaccine in the coming weeks.
A came out beaming. She wanted to hear her voice on the radio, so the interviewer put headphones over her ears and played the clip back to her over the computer. She was delighted. Even D wanted to hear.
There was a spring in her step as she walked back to the car. She was a radio star; everyone would hear her voice on the news over the next 24 hours. Perhaps this will boost her performance at work, too.
Footnote: Unfortunately, the radio broadcast has so far resulted in no eligible girls coming forward for vaccination.