While vaccination hesitancy is not rampant, officials from various districts talk about the challenges they face to vaccinate tribal communities.

Health team crossing a river to reach Kuttampuzha tribal hamlets in Ernakulam districtHealth team from Ernakulam travelling to Kuttampuzha tribal hamlet
news COVID-19 Saturday, June 26, 2021 - 16:20

It took hours of a treacherous jeep ride through the hilly terrains of Idukki, for health officials in the Kerala district to reach the tribal hamlets of Marayoor, an agricultural village close to the Tamil Nadu border. The laborious task was aimed to vaccinate over 2,000 people above the age of 45. But when officials reached the spot earlier this month, in most of the tribal hamlets, houses remained vacant and there was no one in sight. According to health officials, vaccine hesitancy had made people ‘hide’ themselves when the health workers reached the spot. While this is not a common story in the vaccination drive among tribal communities across the state, officials from various districts said that it is indeed a challenging task in some cases.

TNM spoke to health officials of various districts, where a considerable population of tribal communities live in interior forests of the western ghats. In Idukki district, which has one of the toughest terrains, close to 6,000 people above the age of 45 years and 5,000 people between the age of 18 and 44 years have been administered the first dose of the vaccine. Speaking to TNM, Dr Suresh, nodal officer for the vaccination drive in the district, explains, “In many places, even vehicles won’t be able to ply. In such places, we have to carry all the equipment including vaccines. After the tireless efforts, when health workers witness something like what they saw in Marayoor, it’s disheartening.”

Dr Suresh says that they witnessed such an incident despite raising awareness in the communities prior to the vaccination team’s visit. “ASHA workers and tribal officers had previously visited these hamlets, explaining the need for vaccination, considering that there are COVID-19 cases there. But still, when the vaccination team visited 25 hamlets in Marayoor, most of them were empty,” he says. However, health officials have not lost their spirits. A more vigorous campaign is being planned to take the people in the region into confidence about vaccination drives, officials state.

In Ernakulam district, health officials recall the strenuous, four-hour long jeep ride through the forest to reach the tribal hamlets of Kuttampuzha. It took 80 health workers working as eight teams, including doctors and nurses, three days to complete vaccinating 2,500 people in the 17 tribal hamlets of Kuttampuzha.

“Only jeeps can be used for transportation in this way. But since it is a tough terrain, even the jeep moves at a snail’s pace. One can walk faster than that, but the problem is, it is difficult for the people who are not from the place to walk through the way. It was also raining, trees fell across the road obstructing the journey. We had to stop the vehicles, remove the wood and then continue. Many got leech bites,” recalls Dr Sivadas MG, nodal officer for vaccination in Ernakulam district.

The vaccination drive in Kuttampuzha tribal hamlets in Ernakulam district was held between May 24 and 27. About 2,500 people were vaccinated. Unlike in Idukki’s Marayoor, there was no hesitancy among the population in Kuttampuzha to take vaccine shots. Officials attribute this to the continued awareness programme being held in the region, weeks prior to the vaccination drive.

Read: TNM Exclusive: Kerala reports excess deaths till end of May 2021

To ensure that there is medical support for the people in case of any post-vaccination issues, medical teams used to station themselves in the hamlets for the three days, officials said. “Three of our teams used to stay back in the night since there should be someone to ensure medical support in case anyone gets post-vaccination difficulties. However, no one developed any issues,” says Dr Sivadas.

In Wayanad district, which has the highest number of tribal people in the state, above 35,000 people above the age of 45 years, have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to officials, this amounts to 87% of the target population (above 45 years of age). Unlike in Idukki and Ernakulam districts, health officials and the district administration in Wayanad took a different approach to tackle the hurdles of transportation through the difficult terrains.

“In such places, especially if it is a small tribal hamlet, we arrange provisions for transporting the people to the nearest vaccination centre. Following physical distancing norms, we transported people in jeeps. Only in large communities, we held vaccination camps inside the hamlets itself,” says Dr Shijin John, nodal officer for vaccination in Wayanad district.

To ensure awareness about the vaccination drive reaches more tribal people, the Wayanad district officials also made use of the services of Radio Mattoli, a community radio station in the district which has a wide reach among tribal communities in the district. Officials in Wayanad also state that apart from the hesitancy seen among a few locals, generally, people have been cooperative.

However, officials state that it will take a considerable time to fully complete the vaccination drive among the tribal population in the state. In regions like Idukki’s Edamalakudy, which consists of about 24 tribal colonies spread across 35,000 acres of forest, the vaccination drive has not yet started. Edamalakudy also has one of the toughest terrains for commuting, with no road or proper pathway.

“But one of the reasons we have kept vaccination drives pending in Edamalakudy is that, so far, no cases have been reported from the area. So we have to be extremely cautious when entering the area. We have decided to conduct the drive in the coming days. However, only those members with a negative RT-PCR test will be taken to conduct the vaccination drive there,” says Dr Suresh.

Read: Why anti-vaccine propagators in Kerala have fewer takers amid COVID-19 pandemic

Watch video: A doctor dancing to get tribal people tested for coronavirus

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