South African vaccine train sends doses to poor areas



Train workers watch from the COVID-19 vaccination train parked at the Swartkops marshalling yard outside Gqeberha, South Africa on Thursday, September 23, 2021. South Africa sent a train carrying vaccines COVID-19 in one of its poorer provinces to get doses in areas with extensive health facilities. The vaccine train, named Transvaco, will make a three-month tour of the Eastern Cape Province and stop at seven stations for two weeks at a time to vaccinate people. (AP Photo / Jerome Delay)


When Wongalwethu Mbanjwa tried to get the COVID-19 vaccine and found his local center closed, a friend told him there was another option: to get one on the train.

So Mbanjwa did it.

Not just any train, but South Africa’s vaccine train – which has now made its way to the small town of Swartkops on the country’s south coast. Carrying doctors, nurses and, most importantly, doses of vaccines, its mission is to bring vaccines closer to the inhabitants of the small towns and poorer regions of South Africa, which has the highest number of infections to coronavirus from the continent with more than 2.8 million.

The train is parked at Swartkops station, the first stop on a three-month trip through the poor Eastern Cape province. There will be about two weeks at a time at seven stations across the province to vaccinate as many people as possible.

State-owned railway company Transnet launched the program to help the government roll it out. The initiative aims to tackle two of the government’s biggest challenges head-on: distributing doses beyond major cities to areas with limited health facilities and trying to convince hesitant people in those areas to get vaccinated.

The train, named Transvaco, can hold up to 108,000 doses of vaccine in ultra-cold refrigerators. It has nine coaches, including accommodation coaches and a staff kitchen and dining room, a vaccination area and consultation rooms.

It’s a new version of another train that has been carrying doctors and drugs across South Africa since the mid-1990s.

Dr Paballo Mokwana, head of the train program, said medical staff had so far vaccinated just under 1,000 people during the stop at Swartkops. They gave injections on the train, but also sent a vaccination team to nearby factories and businesses to administer vaccines to people at work.

Untsaphokazi Singaphi was one of the people who received a vaccine from the off-site vaccination team at the factory where she works. She arrived to receive her second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine with a smile on her face.

“I am happy and I feel at peace,” she said. “I know I am safe, as are my children and others around me. So I’m really at peace with (the fact) that I’m done. ”

“I was waiting for the moment when I too can say that I am one of the vaccinated in South Africa,” Singaphi said.

Only 14% of South Africa’s 60 million people are fully immunized, and the train is part of efforts to increase that number as quickly as possible.

It doesn’t always work, however.

Andiswa Maseko was the first person to arrive on the train for a vaccine early Thursday morning. Vaccination officer Bongani Nxumalo explained the options to him. She could either have the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine or go for the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech. After Maseko showed signs of hesitation, a nurse entered the vaccination booth and tried to reassure her as well.

But Maseko asked to be given a moment to think about whether she wanted to be vaccinated, got off the train and never returned.

Nxumalo said Swartskop and the Eastern Cape Province were different from other places they worked. People are more reluctant.

“Most people here … have misconceptions about the vaccine,” he said. “A lot of people will say ‘You are here to kill us.'”

“So we keep telling them that the vaccine is real, that COVID is there and that many people have lost their lives. We tell them that we have also been vaccinated, ”Nxumalo said.

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