Written by: Rakhshindah Akhtar, Program Officer, Breakthrough ACTION, and Laboni Rahman, Consultant, Breakthrough ACTION
The dense population in Bangladesh, alongside its predominance of low-income rural areas, makes the country particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 transmission. This risk increases due to both lack of awareness and education on COVID-19 and its vaccine. To increase awareness and counter misinformation, Breakthrough ACTION established a Vaccine Ambassadors community engagement program. The project organized sessions to address community needs, feedback, confusion, and complaints and give the community ownership over COVID-19 protection measures.
The USAID-funded Breakthrough ACTION project trained 114 entrepreneurs who are members of union digital centers (UDCs) in Netrokona, Shariatpur, and Jhalokathi districts to be COVID-19 Vaccine Ambassadors. UDCs are the frontline access point for a number of government services, including assisting people with vaccine registration. Once the members became Vaccine Ambassadors, they organized sessions in their local communities to disseminate priority messages, address community concerns, and counter misinformation and rumors about COVID-19 vaccination. Breakthrough ACTION conducted 24 training sessions in the three districts, reaching more than 1,400 people.
The UDC-led community sessions raised people’s awareness about risks associated with the virus, how to protect themselves and others, how many doses they need, and the registration procedure for them and children aged five to 11. When COVID-19 transmission was low in Bangladesh, vaccine intake decreased. In these sessions, Vaccine Ambassadors highlighted the need for continued vaccination. After attending the session in his area in Netrokona Sadar, Mohammad Joinal said:
“I haven’t taken the second booster dose, though I got the vaccine message. As the number of [COVID-19] cases declined over time, I wasn’t planning to take that either. After today’s interaction, I realized it would have been a mistake. I am going to take my next shot soon.”
These community sessions have notably supported public messaging campaigns to raise awareness for the need to vaccinate children five to 11 years old. During the community sessions, parents watched public service announcements (PSAs) on vaccines for children. Vaccine Ambassadors explained the registration process and said they would assist them with registration.
A lot of hype was going around this community session on [the COVID-19] vaccine, which piqued my interest to come here today. I am glad that I joined the session. Otherwise, I would have been oblivious like my family about the importance of getting our five to 11-year-old children vaccines. I thought vaccine protection was only essential for older people, apart from adults like us, which is wrong.
~ Shathi Akhter, Shariatpur district
For community members, these interactive sessions became a place to ask questions, share concerns, and get facts. To encourage vibrant engagement, the sessions started with lighter discussions and then built toward critical message dissemination and audience participation via video shows, quizzes, and question-answer sessions.
These videos are pretty informative. The discussion part of the session created a place for me to ask questions I have about [the COVID-19] vaccine. On TV, I saw videos encouraging people to take vaccine shots. But there, I couldn’t go with my further questions. I will join these kinds of sessions for more meaningful participation.”
~ Joshna Begum, resident of Durgapur upazila in Netrokona
At a time when peer-to-peer interaction produces stronger outcomes than top-down information sharing, community sessions conducted by its own members build trust—which has been short in supply. Vaccine Ambassadors bring credibility to COVID-19 information and demonstrate that everyone has a role to play in prevention. Badol Hossain, UDC entrepreneur of Islampur union, Shariatpur district, explains why he works as a Vaccine Ambassador:
As an entrepreneur, my schedule is a packed one. However, I chose to be a USAID/ Breakthrough ACTION Vaccine Ambassador and happily organize community sessions to increase my community’s awareness and knowledge of the COVID-19 virus and vaccine. As long as the virus is out there, we must continue these efforts, and I will always be a part of these efforts.”
~ Badol Hossain, UDC entrepreneur, Shariatpur district
Vaccine Ambassadors are investing time and resources into bringing communities together. They also serve as role models in the work to prevent COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.