Using Trusted Community Networks to Vaccinate Older Persons Against COVID-19

JSI
4 min readSep 29, 2023

Since the pandemic started in 2020, people over the age of 60 have borne the brunt of COVID-19.[1] Older persons have a higher risk of serious illness and death due to COVID-19 than people in younger age groups, making them a high-priority group for COVID-19 vaccination.[2] Despite their vulnerability, various barriers, such as concerns about side effects, rumors and misconceptions, and inconvenient locations of vaccination services, prevent older people from seeking vaccination services.

To overcome these obstacles, USAID MOMENTUM Routine Immunization Transformation and Equity used community networks to promote and facilitate COVID-19 vaccination uptake among older persons. In Kenya and India, the project partnered with local organizations whose primary goal is to support older persons to identify barriers and solutions to increase vaccine acceptance and uptake. Local organizations are often better positioned to support their communities because people know them through their previous work and trust them.

In Kenya, the project worked with partner Ageing Concern Foundation’s (ACF) community networks to vaccinate older persons. ACF’s ‘Expanded Vaccine Access for Older Persons in Rural Communities’ project team went door-to-door and conducted outreach at public gatherings and religious events in churches and mosques to educate people about COVID-19 in Kakamega, Siaya, Migori, and Narok counties.

In Kakamega, 72-year-old Prisca and her 78-year-old husband, Lawrence, feared that the vaccine would make them sick or kill them. “People told us that the vaccine injection spreads the virus and that people like my husband who suffer from chronic diseases shouldn’t be vaccinated because the vaccine will kill them. Out of fear, my husband and I refused to be vaccinated,” explained Prisca.

An ACF community health worker visited the couple to educate them about the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine and dispel myths and misconceptions about it. Prisca and Lawrence, like many older persons in Kenya, trusted their local health workers and eventually decided to get vaccinated. Between October 2022 and March 2023, the project supported the administration of 79,397 doses of COVID-19 vaccines to older persons through ACF.

An ACF community health worker (left) and Prisca. Photo: ACF

In India, the project collaborated with HelpAge India to identify and mitigate vaccination barriers among older persons. They found that many older persons had limited mobility or lacked a way to get to vaccination sites. HelpAge India used various strategies, including a mobile van in Hoshiarpur District, to overcome transportation limitations.

The mobile van transports and vaccinates older people in Hoshiarpur District. Photo: HelpAge India

HelpAge volunteers also planned and conducted door-to-door visits to vaccinate bedridden older persons. Eighty-two-year-old Nirmal, who had limited mobility and was confined to his home, couldn’t get to his second vaccine dose appointment. When his son explained his father’s situation to the HelpAge team at a local vaccination camp, a volunteer went to Nirmal’s home that same day to administer the dose.

“I couldn’t go to the vaccination center because I have trouble moving around. I really wanted to get vaccinated to stay safe from the pandemic. Thankfully, the project team arranged for me to get vaccinated at home,” said Nirmal. Overall, HelpAge India’s community networks vaccinated 339,902 older people.

Nirmal receives his second COVID-19 vaccine dose at home. Photo: HelpAge India

MOMENTUM was able to reach older persons through its local partners’ community ties. Facilitating the vaccination process by bringing services into the community increased acceptance and uptake, averting some of the burden of COVID-19 for older persons. As the emergency phase of the pandemic comes to an end,[3] the project’s work in Kenya and India to vaccinate older persons will continue to provide benefits. Immunization programs in both countries are better equipped to collaborate with non-traditional partners, tailor approaches to specific audiences to generate vaccine demand, and integrate vaccination into other community services as one of several strategies to reach people at all stages of life with immunization services. The project’s work has reinforced the importance of leveraging community networks during pandemics and other emergencies to serve and protect people who have particular needs and limitations.

[1] “Decade of Healthy Ageing Connection Series №1 — COVID-19.” World Health Organization, September 30, 2020. https://www.who.int/publications/m/item/decade-connection-series-no1.

[2] “WHO SAGE Roadmap for Prioritizing Uses of COVID-19 Vaccines.” World Health Organization, March 30, 2023. https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/WHO-2019-nCoV-Vaccines-SAGE-Roadmap.

[3] “WHO Director-General’s Opening Remarks at the Media Briefing — 5 May 2023.” World Health Organization, May 5, 2023. https://www.who.int/news-room/speeches/item/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing---5-may-2023.

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JSI

JSI is dedicated to improving people’s lives around the world through greater health, education, and socioeconomic equity for individuals and communities.