**Goma, 25 April 2022 ** – “I work at the border, exactly at the barrier,” explains Ms Mweze, who works with the Congolese immigration services at the Grande Barrière in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, right at the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with Rwanda.
The close to 90-million people nation is bordered by nine countries: Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, South Sudan, the United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. As such, immigration agents like Ms Mweze are essential for ensuring that COVID-19 preventive measures are observed.
North Kivu – one of the country's 26 provinces – has over 10 million inhabitants. It shares borders with Rwanda and Uganda, as well as nine official points of entry. Prior to the pandemic, an average of 95,000 people used these points to cross the border between Rwanda and DR Congo each day.
“We are in touch with people on a daily basis, which exposes us to all sorts of diseases. Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 was a priority,” Ms Mweze explains.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with recurrent Ebola outbreaks, disease surveillance measures have been put in place at points of entry in North Kivu by the National Programme for Border Hygiene (PNHF) with support from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to prevent, detect and control the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.
The rollout of COVID-19 vaccination in North Kivu started in May 2021 and targeted health-care workers and people aged 18 and over. Out of the 170 COVID-19 vaccination sites planned by Government authorities in the province, 137 had been operational up until this February, yet none at the busy points of entry in North Kivu.
To fill this gap, the Ministry of Health, with IOM’s technical support, set up temporary vaccination sites at points of entry to better reach communities living along the border who didn’t have access to the vaccination programme until then.
Each vaccination site comprises a waiting and registration area, a pre-vaccination consultation area, a vaccine administration area and a post-vaccination observation area, and each team includes two doctors, two nurses and two data officers, as well as a team leader.
IOM is also supporting the provision of medical supplies and personal protection equipment, including surgical masks, examination gloves and fluid resistant isolation gowns, and IT Equipment such as tablets, laptops and internet modems.
In addition, IOM has been strengthening the capacities of frontline health workers and other staff in support of the country’s Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI). The activities include training sessions on vaccine safety, monitoring and management of adverse events following immunizations (AEFI), and risk communication and community engagement (RCCE) techniques related to COVID-19 vaccination.
The ongoing vaccination campaign targets migrants, national and international travellers, frontline workers and local communities living along Grande Barrière, including small business owners at risk of COVID-19 infection due to high cross-border mobility.
Ms Mweze is one of the over 1,000 people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a little over a month at the vaccination site at Grand Barrière, DRC’s point of entry with the highest number of people crossing in a day.
“It was clean, quick and painless,” she says. “I am hypertensive, so they took extra precautions before vaccinating me. I felt like I was in good hands.”
The success of the joint efforts of DRC’s health services and programmes showcased the need for a multisectoral and coordinated approach that would increase vaccination coverage and reduce the mismatch between demand and supply of COVID-19 vaccination services.
IOM plans to support the provision of COVID-19 vaccination to other communities along the borders as well as the set-up of a similar vaccination site at Goma’s International Airport.
To boost vaccine demand, IOM is also supporting a national awareness-raising campaign, which allows those living around points of entry and along the border to provide feedback on the response.
A recent survey conducted by the Ministry of Health with support from IOM showed that roughly 66 per cent of those passing through the point of entry at Grande Barrière had received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the same survey, more than half of the travellers who had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 were willing to get vaccinated.
“We have noticed a huge increase in travellers interested in getting vaccinated here,” says Dr Gervais Kakule, Team Lead Physician at the vaccination site at the Grande Barrière in Goma. “More and more people these days are aware about the dangers of COVID-19 and the benefits of getting vaccinated.”
With COVID-19 still rampant in DRC and beyond, Ms Mweze thinks it’s imperative to prioritize our health and that of our loved ones. “I wanted to get vaccinated because I need to protect myself and my family,” she says.
“The pandemic is not over yet. You can still catch it at church, at the market – wherever there are lots of people. We all need to do our part and get vaccinated,” Ms Mweze explains.
IOM’s vaccination programme in DR Congo is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).
This story was written by Daco Tambilika and Dr Bantu Kalimba with IOM DR Congo.