A USD$7.4 million Vaccination Action Network (VAN) has been launched by the Rockefeller Foundation for sub Saharan Africa.
VAN will be locally-led, peer-to-peer learning initiative designed to engage public health decision-makers across sub-Saharan Africa and bolster their efforts to strengthen health systems while scaling up Covid-19 vaccine demand strategies.
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. Plans to expand to other countries in the region are underway as well.
“The Vaccination Action Network’s community-based approach brings together our counterparts from across the region and country. This collaboration is the key to finding and implementing the right vaccination approach,” said Dr. Diana Atwine, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Health, Uganda.
In a recent VAN learning session focused on Wakiso district, Dr. Mathias Lugoloobi, District Health Officer in Uganda’s central Wakiso District echoed this sentiment, saying that “for strategies to be successful, the community alone must have the final say.”
VAN’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.
“The Vaccination Action Network is helping to establish new channels of communication that will consistently elevate regional learnings, solutions, and leadership,” said William Asiko, Vice President of The Rockefeller Foundation Africa Regional Office.
“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.”
This reflects The Rockefeller Foundation’s regional commitment to support localized solutions, empower community representatives, and create more resilient health systems.
Sabin Vaccine Institute and Dalberg are the secretariat for the network, while Amref Health Africa (Amref) is playing a key role to guide and administer subgrants to local organizations in participating countries so that they can implement vaccine demand generation strategies discussed during the learning sessions.
While more than 60 percent of people have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 globally, just 20 percent of people in Africa have received full doses. Inconsistent and inequitable access to supplies initially hindered the continent’s vaccination campaigns. However, uptake is now primarily impacted by complex delivery scenarios, limited access to vaccination centers, and other ongoing demand barriers, such as vaccine hesitancy and waning concerns about Covid-19 infection.
Peer-to-peer learning is an important tool for officials who are working to address these challenges. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, this type of intra- and inter-country coordination has helped the continent scale up genomic sequencing and secure essential tools, including personal protective equipment and diagnostic tests.
“By encouraging officials to come together, the Vaccination Action Network is opening new dialogues that emphasize regional solutions to local challenges,” said Githinji Gitahi, Group CEO at Amref. “
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.”
VAN will host monthly intra-country sessions and multiple cross-country discussions before the end of the calendar year, with the goal of turning learnings from these sessions into actionable solutions. To facilitate this, VAN is supporting Amref through a USD$5 million grant to design and implement tailored strategies that better reflect local needs and address demand barriers for increased vaccine uptake.
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.”
VAN represents the Global Vaccination Initiative (GVI)’s first major investment in overcoming low vaccine demand in Africa. Launched in April 2022, GVI is The Rockefeller Foundation’s USD$55 million effort to support country-led efforts to fully vaccinate 90% of the most at-risk populations in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean over the next two years.