By Joyce Ojanji

The Rockefeller foundation has launched the Vaccine Action Network (VAN), a USD$7.4 million locally-led, peer to peer learning initiative to strengthen health systems while scaling up COVID-19 vaccine demand strategies across sub-Saharan Africa.

While more than 60 percent of people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 globally, only 20 percent are from Africa.

The Network’s objective is to help decision-makers understand the drivers behind vaccination and support initiatives that will increase COVID-19 vaccine uptake, while strengthening routine immunization so that health systems are better equipped to respond when the next pandemic strikes.

William Asiko, Vice president of the Rockefeller foundation Africa regional office, said that VAN is helping to establish new channels of communication that will consistently elevate regional learnings, solutions and leadership.

“By making these discussions country –led, we want to create a space where those directly involved in vaccination campaigns are able to voice what is working, what isn’t and what needs to change to improve vaccination rates,” he said.

With Amref Health Africa (Amref) playing a key role to guide and administer subgrants to local organizations in participating countries so that they can implement vaccine demand generation strategies, the Group’s CEO Githinji Gitahi said:“By encouraging officials to come together, the Vaccination Action Network is opening new dialogues that emphasize regional solutions to local challenges.

“This is essential to tackle vaccine equity issues, which are tied to national and regional contexts, but also offers countries an opportunity for longer-term coordination on other priorities.”

The network is already connecting ministry of health officials, implementing partners, and other key actors across Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda through activities designed to take place within and between countries (intra- and cross-country), so participants can share lessons learned and best practices for boosting local demand for COVID- 19 vaccines.

Prior to the launch, VAN hosted two cross-country and five intra-country discussions, which have already yielded results. Following a May VAN session focused on improving vaccine understanding and uptake, the Infectious Diseases Institute (IDI) at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda is now working to train “vaccination champions” in the Wakiso district.

The goal is for champions to connect with communities about the benefits of vaccines, address their questions and concerns, and ultimately encourage vaccination through community-based strategies that have proved successful in past epidemic control settings in Uganda.

“One of our biggest takeaways from the VAN conversation was that we needed to do more to engage communities with accurate and approachable information on Covid-19 vaccines, leaning on lessons learned from other health challenges such as HIV and Ebola,” said Mohammed Lamorde, Head of Global Health Security at IDI.

“That’s why our program focuses on working with trusted community members and leaders to equip them with the tools they need to encourage greater uptake of vaccines within their communities.”