The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has fully vaccinated 90 percent of its eligible adult population within just seven days, the Bhutanese Ministry of Health said on Tuesday.
The tiny country, wedged between India and China and home to nearly 800,000 people, began giving out second doses on Tuesday last week in a mass drive that has been hailed by the UN Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) as “arguably the fastest vaccination campaign to be executed during a pandemic.”
Bhutan grabbed headlines in April when its government said it had inoculated about the same percentage of eligible adults with the first dose in under two weeks after India donated it 550,000 shots of AstraZeneca vaccine.
However, the country faced a shortage for months after India, a major supplier of the AstraZeneca jab, halted exports as it scrambled to meet a rising demand at home as infections surged.
Bhutan was able to restart its drive last week after 500,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine arrived from the US as a donation under the UN-backed COVAX global distribution program, an initiative devised to give countries access to COVID-19 vaccines regardless of their wealth.
About 5,000 additional shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were facilitated through COVAX, which is led by the WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
It also received more than 400,000 AstraZeneca shots from Denmark, Croatia and Bulgaria in the past two weeks.
“Our aim is to achieve herd immunity among our population in the shortest possible time to avert a major public health crisis,” Bhutanese Minister for Health Dechen Wangmo said.
Many Western countries with far more resources have yet to vaccinate such a high rate of eligible adults.
Health experts say Bhutan’s small population helped, but the country also benefited from effective messaging from top officials and an established cold-chain storage system.
More than 3,000 health workers participated and 1,200 vaccination centers across the country helped ensure that shots reached every eligible adult.
In some cases, health workers trekked for days through landslides and pouring rain to reach extremely remote villages atop steep mountains to administer doses to those unable to get to a center, said Sonam Wangchuk, a member of Bhutan’s vaccination task force.
“Vaccination is the pillar of Bhutan’s healthcare initiative,” he said.
Bhutan’s government is also led by medical practitioners. The prime minister, the foreign minister and the health minister are all medical professionals.
Frequent messaging from the government, which directly answers questions from the public about COVID-19 and vaccinations on Facebook, also helped combat vaccine hesitancy among citizens.
“People are quite eager to come and get themselves vaccinated,” Wangchuk said.
Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering and King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck were also early advocates of the vaccine, which allayed fears surrounding the rollout.
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