Vaccines crucial in fighting Covid

DETERMINED—Macheso (left) inspects a vaccine storeroom

By Jason Miks, Unicef:

“The third wave is hitting Malawi hard,” says Steve Macheso, United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) Malawi Health Specialist. “It’s stressing the health system, stressing the health workforce, and leading to serious disruption in the lives of people in the country.”

Cases have surged across Malawi in recent weeks, but particularly in Blantyre and Lilongwe, the two largest cities. By late July, almost 50,000 cases of Covid had been confirmed in the country.


Macheso says Malawi “saw the third wave coming,” giving the government and partners, including Unicef, a chance to ramp up preparedness. “So we’re better off in terms of the oxygen supply situation, in terms of PPE supplies, in terms of testing capabilities.”

Yet, a rapidly rising positivity rate over the past couple of weeks – from less than five percent in May to over 25 percent by the third week of July – underscores the challenge still facing the country.

Even with additional supplies in place, some districts and health facilities are running short of testing kits and protective gear. “[We’re] also having problems with supplies for treating comorbidities,” Macheso adds.


All these issues pose a multifaceted threat to the country’s children, who have lost parents, had their education disrupted and been left more vulnerable to exploitation during the pandemic.

“Although the number of cases affecting children remains relatively low, these people dying from Covid have children; they have families,” Macheso says. “We’re seeing tremendous suffering and neglect among children and adolescents.”

Unicef has provided financial and technical support for Malawi’s response to this latest wave; including by mobilising resources; building capacity among rapid response teams; providing supplies such as Personal Protective Equipment, test kits, oxygen concentrators and ventilators; and undertaking risk communication and community engagement activities.

With funding from the United Kingdom Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, Unicef has also supported the Ministry of Health in establishing an oxygen plant to ensure hospitals have the supplies they need to treat patients with severe cases of Covid.

Duncan Banda, a physiotherapist, knows all too well the urgency of ensuring adequate oxygen supplies. He was working at a Covid field hospital in Lilongwe, when the facility ran out of oxygen cylinders.

There were just four physiotherapists to help around 60 patients experiencing breathing difficulties.

“We had to reposition patients, do deep breathing techniques and intensive physiotherapy. We lost four patients in four hours that day,” Banda says.

Physiotherapy has played an important role in managing Covid care in Malawi, particularly for patients with breathing difficulties.

“We only admit those who are unable to breathe independently,” Banda says. “For those on machines, physiotherapy helps as we try to wean the patients off.

“Using chest physiotherapy techniques, we can train patients to breathe properly and return to normal without a machine. We help them breathe and expand their lungs.”

Unicef has also played a central role in the Covid vaccine rollout, helping the government secure the jabs and assisting in their distribution.

The most recent vaccination drive ended on June 26, 2021, when the country ran out of vaccine doses.

Stocks ran out just as vaccine uptake started to improve, although 192,000 vaccines donated by the French Government arrived via the Covax Facility on July 24, and more are expected this month.

The initial focus of the vaccine programme has been on reaching health and social workers, the elderly and other vulnerable populations, including those with underlying health risks.

Tamara Katuli, a health surveillance assistant, is one of those who have already received the vaccine.

“We were so afraid of Covid,” she says, recalling how she and her family felt in the early days of the pandemic. “But after getting vaccinated, we feel safer.”

By the end of June, around 385,000 people had received the first Covid vaccine dose – an important achievement, but only about two percent of the population.

Meanwhile, by Wednesday, 142,099 people had been fully vaccinated while 455,763 had taken their first shots.

Wellington Kaima, health surveillance assistant at a health centre on the outskirts of Blantyre, has also been urging more people to get vaccinated.

“The development of our country will be affected if the population is unhealthy,” he says. “I am encouraging everyone to go to their nearest health centre and get vaccinated. Don’t hesitate; the vaccine is safe and effective. It is provided for free at vaccination centres.”

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