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‘Die in 2 yrs, become a monkey’: Why this Nagaland district has India’s lowest vaccine coverage

Data shows Kiphire, that shares a border with Myanmar, has just 16% of its population covered by first Covid vaccine dose. Kiphire has an estimated population of just over 74,000.

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Agartala/New Delhi: India has managed to deliver more than a billion doses of Covid vaccines, but in one corner of Nagaland, unfounded and unscientific rumours on social media have kept the vaccination drive from achieving much success.

Kiphire district, on the easternmost part of Nagaland and sharing a border with Myanmar, has a population of just over 74,000 (according to 2011 Census), but its first dose vaccine coverage is a mere 16 per cent, shows data accessed by ThePrint.

District officials told ThePrint that being one of the most backward districts of India, rumours and misleading social media forwards had played a major role in hampering the area’s vaccination drive.

“There are rumours that if you take the vaccine you will die after two years, another rumour is that if you take the vaccine you’ll become monkeys. It’s because of the rumours that people aren’t coming forward (to get vaccinated),” Chief Medical Officer of Kiphire Dr E.M. Patton told ThePrint.

“These rumours are spreading especially through WhatsApp,” he added.

In a video conference last week with officials of districts with the lowest vaccine coverages, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched the ‘Har Ghar Dastak’ campaign to increase pace of vaccination.

During the video conference, Modi told officials to create new ‘micro strategies’ that reach out to villages and households that are still reluctant to get vaccinated.

“After the VC with the Prime Minister, we had a meeting yesterday (Monday) with all medical officers and block administrative officers. We (medical and block officers) have been divided up into six-seven groups, we are planning to move around villages to spread awareness,” Patton said.

Another district official, who did not wish to be named, also blamed “petty rumours”. The official said that rumours like ‘you may not have children if vaccinated’ are a big deterrence.

The rumours, he said, are not just spreading through social media but also by word of mouth, blaming some gao buras (village elders) and church leaders.

“The gao buras are also spreading these rumours. Whenever the medical department or administrative department visit the villages, they refuse to vaccinate themselves for fear of retribution from their own people,” he added.


Also read: Nearly half of new Covid cases over past week in Kerala are those fully vaccinated


‘In eight villages not a single person vaccinated’

According to data shared by the district’s health department, there are eight villages where not a single person has been vaccinated. These are Old Rethisthi, New Longmatra, Aso, New Rethisthi, Thulun, Canaan, Throngkim and Sangtsong. The number of people eligible for vaccination in these villages ranges from 10 people in Canaan to 107 in Old Rethisthi.

Kiphire has a total of 105 villages, plus 10 non-recognised villages. The official said the medical department and district officials have visited all 115 villages. Non-recognised villages are those that are not on official records.

“When we summon them (the villagers) for meetings in the villages or subdivisions, they act like they’re receptive to the idea of vaccination, but when we send the team to the villages, they will give one excuse or another to avoid. They will not cite the rumours directly, they will just say that they are going to the paddy field. They will not be around,” said the district official mentioned above.

Another challenge is that those who have taken the first dose are refusing to come for the second dose, since they developed mild symptoms after the first one, he added.

Officials have also been instructed to not waste the vaccine doses. This means that there must be at least 10 willing candidates in any village for the team to open one vial of vaccine.

District and health officials usually contact the village councils for a list of willing candidates. If the number is too few, the vaccination team does not go to the village.

Pewezo Khalo, District Programme Officer (Reproductive and Child Health and Universal Immunization Program), also agreed that rumours on social media have been the biggest impediment in the path of the district’s vaccination success. Because Kiphire is among the most backward districts in India, running awareness campaigns are also hard, he added.

“We are intensifying the awareness campaigns now. Scientific information has been translated into local languages, and this information is being distributed through pamphlets. We have also made audios and videos that we are trying to share on social media,” Khalo told ThePrint.

“Short video pledges about vaccination made by prominent officials have been circulated in the local media,” he added.

Khalo noted that many local religious leaders, NGOs, and women’s groups have been constantly working to increase awareness and have been supporting the local administration in their work.

“The church has been an important platform to spread positive messages about the vaccine. Some church leaders have been very cooperative in this regard, and they are not opposing the vaccine,” he said.

The district officials are working with the help of NGOs Biramal Foundation and Corona Trust, along with Mahila Shakti Kendra district coordinators, for better reach.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)


Also read: Falsified data, inadequately trained vaccinators: BMJ flags Pfizer vaccine trial ‘violations’


 

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