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Lebanon: Tackling COVID-19 through prevention and vaccination
“Vaccinations are so important. We are in touch with people and we know that if we are in contact with them, there’s a danger [of contracting COVID-19]. So, to avoid this we need to get vaccinated,” says Nina Baz, a 78-year-old Lebanese woman living at the Mission of Life nursing home in Antelias, Lebanon.
She is one of more than 5,000 people who have been vaccinated by MSF teams in nursing homes across Lebanon. Since 19th March 2021, MSF has been supporting the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health’s roll out of COVID-19 vaccinations across the country and is currently scaling up its immunisation activities by opening two new vaccination centres.
Mobile vaccination teams in nursing homes
MSF started providing COVID-19 vaccinations in March to ensure that some of Lebanon’s most vulnerable and at-risk communities would be able to get the vaccine.
Many of the elderly residents and staff in Lebanese nursing homes are unable to move freely or easily due to their health condition or because of accessibility issues.
“It would have been very difficult to arrange transportation to take all of the people from our nursing home to vaccination centres,” says Sister Marie Aarbash, director of House of Grace, a small nursing home in Jdeide, a town in the Mount Lebanon region.
“We only have one car and we take care of 10 people here. How were we supposed to take them to a vaccination site?”
For her and other directors of nursing homes, MSF mobile teams, who could come to them instead, made all the difference.
"It was such a relief that they came and vaccinated us here"
MSF mobile teams have visited more than 30 nursing homes across the country including in refugee camps.
“It was such a relief that they came and vaccinated us here,” says Sister Lara El Hajj, clinical pharmacist at Mission of Life.
“A lot of the elderly people at our home suffer from disabilities and can’t move easily.”
72-year-old Fadi Khoury is one of them. “I am relieved,” he says, after receiving his second dose of vaccine.
“I am no longer scared for my life and it feels like a heavy weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I was worried about myself and scared for the other residents I live with. Everyone deserves to feel guilt-free and safe.”
Since March 2021, MSF’s mobile teams were also deployed to provide vaccinations in three prisons across Lebanon.
Scaling up and setting up COVID-19 vaccination sites
As well as the vaccination programmes in nursing homes and prisons, at the beginning of June MSF opened two COVID-19 vaccination centres, in the northern city of Tripoli and the town of Bar Elias.
“We see this as the next step to increase access to the COVID-19 vaccine for even more people in Lebanon,” says Zeina Ghantous, MSF Lebanon deputy country director.
“Even if the number of COVID-19 patients is not as high as what it was a few months ago, there is still a lot to be done to avoid another wave of COVID-19 cases.”
The COVID-19 pandemic first hit Lebanon in the spring of 2020.
In August of the same year, a devastating port explosion in Beirut made social distancing and isolation impossible in the Lebanese capital and led to a drastic increase in COVID-19 cases.
Lebanon’s economic crisis had left its public health system in an already fragile state, facing regular shortages of drugs and other medical supplies. Now, it struggled to respond to the rapid increase in COVID-19 patients.
In January 2021, the country witnessed a second surge of COVID-19 cases, even worse than the first.
Patients filled hospitals to capacity and the system reached breaking point.
MSF temporarily transformed one of its hospitals into a COVID-19 facility to support local authorities.
“We see the vaccinations as the continuity of our COVID-19 work,” says Caline Rhayem, MSF deputy medical coordinator.
“Last year, we set up COVID-19 testing sites soon after the pandemic started. We also put in place an isolation site and started treating COVID-19 patients in one of our facilities."
"Now that COVID-19 vaccines are available, they are the clear next step for our activities. We really want to contribute towards helping the local health authorities tackle the pandemic.”
“Health promotion is as essential as the vaccine itself”
As of 17th June, more than one million people in Lebanon had registered to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
More than half have already received a first dose, and over 300,000 have received their second.
However, in a country of over 6 million, a significant part of the population is still hesitating about get vaccinated and this an additional challenge to be addressed.
"There’s still a lot of work to be done to combat disinformation and ensure that more people come and get vaccinated"
“In Lebanon, vaccine hesitancy is a reality,” explains Houssam Al Rahabi, MSF health promotion supervisor in the vaccination response team.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done to combat disinformation and ensure that more people come and get vaccinated.”
He and his teams are in touch with the local community every day to educate people about the vaccine and explain how to get registered on the vaccine platform set up by local health authorities.
When they visit homes and refugee camps, they also address people’s questions and fears, and combat myths and disinformation about COVID-19.
“Health promotion is as essential as the vaccine itself, if not more,” Houssam adds.
“A lot of people are still scared to get vaccinated. They wonder if getting a certain type of vaccine over another makes a difference, if they will suffer from side effects… Our role is to provide them with the right information and to reassure them."
"We need to listen to people’s fears and concerns, instead of just telling them to get vaccinated. In that regard, health promotion and vaccination go very much hand in hand, and one cannot really function or be effective without the other."
"We need to continue both activities and strive at all levels if we really want to ensure that COVID-19 is behind us.”