With more than 90 million people spread across some 888,000 square miles, rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a challenge. Reaching people with timely information about vaccinations when most of the population doesn’t have ready access to the internet has required some creative thinking — and the use of more accessible technology.
The sheer size of the country — one of Africa’s largest — isn’t the only barrier to rolling out the vaccine. Chronic poverty, limited essential service infrastructure, disease outbreaks, recurrent armed conflict, massive displacement and the lack of a steady supply of vaccine doses have meant that less than 1 percent of the population was vaccinated as of mid-November 2021.
The COVAX Facility — a global partnership designed to achieve vaccine equity — is supplying COVID-19 vaccines to the DRC. But getting timely information to people about where they can get vaccinated has been a challenge. To address that issue, UNICEF and partners have launched an SMS preregistration system to bring COVID-19 vaccine doses and the people who need them together.
Because around half of Congolese own a mobile phone, SMS, a flexible and timely way of conveying information, was chosen to reach the population. And, with the help of the country's three mobile network operators — Orange, Vodacom and Africell — it's working. So far, around 16 million people across 15 priority provinces have received free text messages encouraging vaccination registration.
We’re trying to use SMS to connect vaccines to communities and provide families with the information they need to make the right decisions for themselves and their loved ones. — Sophie Chavanel, Chief of Communication for Development, UNICEF DRC
“We’re trying to use SMS to connect vaccines to communities and provide families with the information they need to make the right decisions for themselves and their loved ones,” says Sophie Chavanel, Chief of Communication for Development, UNICEF DRC.
So far, so good
Early results have been positive — in less than four weeks, more than 195,000 people had accessed the registration platform and around 54,000 people had registered for a COVID-19 vaccination.
To access the preregistration platform, users simply text INFO to a free number. They are then asked to select one of the DRC's five local languages after which they can register themselves or someone else on his or her behalf. By also providing their gender, age and location, registrants help the government meet the demand for vaccines in each locale, ensuring every dose can be administered before it expires. As vaccines arrive in communities, those who have signed up are sent a list of vaccination centers. The platform also allows communities to provide feedback about their experience at the centers, which helps UNICEF monitor the campaign in real-time.
“Our objective is to enable 50 million Congolese to receive the vaccine by the end of 2022 and thus be better protected against the disease,” says Elisabeth Mukamba, National Director of the DRC's Expanded Program on Immunization. “This innovative SMS preregistration initiative is welcome and allows us to communicate more quickly and effectively, even in the most remote communities.”
Keeping it simple
Tansia Mube Justin is a social mobilizer and a member of a community animation cell. These groups, usually consisting of 8 to 12 volunteers elected by a community representative, regularly visit with families to share information on essential health practices and establish a dialogue with the public to monitor the flow of COVID-19 information and offer residents a way to provide feedback.
Preregistering by SMS is free and really easy. It has a big advantage because it allows you to see the vaccination sites closest to your home. As soon as I left the vaccination site, I encouraged people who wanted to be vaccinated to preregister by SMS. — Tansia Mube Justin
“Preregistering by SMS is free and really easy. It has a big advantage because it allows you to see the vaccination sites closest to your home,” Justin says after getting vaccinated. “As soon as I left the vaccination site, I encouraged people who wanted to be vaccinated to preregister by SMS and help others who couldn’t register themselves.”
Aïchatou Cissé, the Senior Country Manager at Gavi, which together with the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations co-leads the COVAX Facility, agrees SMS is playing an important role in ensuring as many people as possible can receive the vaccine.
“The use of technology, including SMS, to facilitate access to vaccination information enhances quick and greater reach by overcoming practical barriers to information," Cissé says. “It’s also helping ensure fair and equitable access to the vaccine by building trust and acceptance for COVID-19 vaccination.”
Top photo: An SMS preregistration program in the Democratic Republic of Congo takes users through a series of prompts and questions that help UNICEF and partners connect them with COVID-19 vaccines near where they live. ©UNICEF/DRC