Vaccines on horseback: Fijian doctors take long, muddy road to protect remote villages from Covid | Fiji


TTo reach the village of Nakida in the highlands of Fiji, Dr Losalini Tabakei and his colleagues walked for hours, up and down mountains, through forests, muddy slopes, rivers and dangerous ridges with steep slopes. steep bamboo forest on either side.

Their supplies – clothing, medical equipment and, most importantly, the Covid-19 vaccines they brought to administer to the remote community of just 60 people – were sent separately on horseback; vaccines in refrigerated boxes, the rest in plastic-wrapped bags. The horses took the longer but flatter road to town along the river.

The team, made up of Tabakei, a junior surgical consultant at CWM Hospital in Suva, the Fijian capital, as well as other surgeons, nurses, consultants, clerks, a police officer, interns and a local health worker , made the trip as part of the Fijian government’s campaign to “leave no one behind”.

The country is grappling with a devastating epidemic in the Delta that has claimed more than 500 lives and 47,000 cases, or more than 5% of the country’s population of around 900,000 people. The Pacific nation has the dubious honor of having the highest per capita infection rate over the past month.

The health team traveled through the Fijian highlands to reach the village of Nakida to administer Covid vaccines. Photograph: Losalini Tabakei / The Guardian

The trip, which the residents of Nakida had assured them would take a maximum of three hours, took the group five hours.

“No one was prepared mentally or physically,” she said with a laugh a week later on the phone from Suva, where she just finished rounds to the hospital. “The guides, they do not have the right to tell us how far we have to go, because according to their conviction that would lengthen the trip. They would say “We’re almost there” when we were about a tenth of the way away. “

Their journey was not made easier by the fact that they accidentally left all of their travel snacks in the bags that were put on the horses, meaning they only had water – and a grapefruit, which a member of their team spotted, climbed a tree to pick and share with his colleagues.

Videos from the expedition – which show the team joking and teasing each other as they go and chanting the slogan “Reach the unreachable, leave no one behind” – were shared by the country’s Minister of Health, Dr Ifereimi Waqainabete, as a sign of a collective effort to vaccinate his entire community against Covid-19. The campaign appears to be paying off, with 95% of all eligible people receiving one dose of the vaccine and around 45% receiving both doses.

Doctors trekking in Nakida
Doctors traveling. The villagers of Nakida “were worried about our safety,” says Dr Losalini Tabakei.
Photography: @stitchbaefj

There were only 25 people in Nakida who needed to be vaccinated and Tabakei says the villagers were very happy to see the group arrive.

“They were worried that we would be doing it safely and they had prepared a sumptuous dinner for us,” she says. After showers and dinner, and despite their fatigue, the medical team delivered their awareness speech about Covid-19 and the vaccine.

“They were very receptive and they were very happy to see visitors and to see that we cared enough about making this trip and reaching their village,” says Tabakei.

An interactive map

“In the question-and-answer sessions, they mentioned that they had already started to experience symptoms of Covid-19 a few weeks ago, so even in these remote villages – and we have seen it everywhere in Naitasiri – despite their deletion, where there is a clue that this virus will find its way. It kind of reinforced our goal of going there to educate them, to vaccinate them. “

Tabakei and other health workers visited around 20 villages in Naitasiri that week. The format of their visits is the same: performing cultural ceremonies, giving a speech to raise awareness about the virus, in particular by addressing conspiracy theories. Then the team dabs people with symptoms of Covid, provides vaccines to those who want them, and takes care of other health concerns.

Dr Tabakei and some of his colleagues on a hike
Dr Tabakei (front) and some of his colleagues on the hike. Photograph: Losalini Tabakei / The Guardian

The reception of the group and the attitude towards the vaccine depend entirely on the attitude of the village chief towards the vaccination, says Tabakei. In villages where the chief is positive, 90-95% of the villagers will be vaccinated; in villages where the chief is skeptical, this number drops to 40-50%.

It helps that Tabakei, whose mother is from a village on the edge of Naitasiri province, speaks the local dialect.

“Especially the elderly, they tend to be very reserved. They don’t always have access to information, so when they see someone from the province who comes to their village and says, “This is good for you, it will help you” – and we have seen some examples of that. very real, right after talking to them – [people are] saying, “OK, I’m going to get the shot now” and they line up to get the shot. “

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