Increasing COVID-19 Vaccine Access in Asia, West Pacific Region

The hustle and bustle of the impending Christmas and New Year holidays was upon the Philippines in late November 2021. Something else was also stirring up excitement: a mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign promising the opportunity to safely celebrate with loved ones.

Health workers vaccinated 8 million people over three days, helping the country take a major step toward protecting its citizens from COVID-19 and returning to normal life. 

“Big malls opened their venues as vaccination sites, free transportation was given to healthcare workers, and religious and cultural groups volunteered,” said Dr. Meng-Yu Chen, Asia Regional Epidemiologist for The Task Force’s COVID-19 Vaccine Implementation Program (CoVIP). “This campaign demonstrated the public-private partnerships and immense community engagement that supports vaccination efforts in the Philippines.”

This was Chen’s first visit to a mass vaccination site for COVID-19. Earlier in November, she arrived in the Philippines to support CoVIP’s work with low- and middle-income countries to ensure their vaccination programs can deploy, use and evaluate COVID-19 vaccines.

Previously working for her home country Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control on infectious disease investigation, Chen, who was trained as a pediatrician, uses her experiences to support countries with technical needs for rolling out COVID-19 vaccines and monitoring and evaluating the implementation of vaccination campaigns. 

Vaccination coverage for most countries in the East Asia and the Pacific region meets the World Health Organization’s goal of 70%, but for certain low- and middle-income countries in the region like the Philippines, there are many challenges to reaching that target. Chen said common challenges in the region include the need for more modern information technology systems, workforce development to support vaccine administration and program monitoring, and ensuring demand remains high for both initial vaccinations and boosters.

But in Chen’s experience, the issue of equity remains the most important challenge to overcome.

For example, in the Philippines where 63% of people are fully vaccinated, Chen explains that supply chains struggle to reach the many remote communities throughout the country’s chain of islands. The majority of people vaccinated are those who can reach the vaccination sites in urban settings. However, the country is working to increase accessibility to and availability of COVID-19 vaccinations in rural communities.

“You can see modernized, urban zones in the Philippines, but there are also still many rural areas and the gap between urban and rural is resulting in differences in coverage due to conditions such as access to health services, social support and access to information,” said Chen. “If we don’t resolve this issue, we will never attain the high level of coverage that we seek.”

As part of the solution, Chen values the sharing of lessons learned regionally and globally, including the insights of her fellow CoVIP colleagues from Central Asia, Africa the Middle East and Central America. Chen said she is thankful to have knowledge-sharing across CoVIP and hopes that more global, widespread information sharing will take place.

Chen also points to the strengths of the Field Epidemiology Training Program (FETP) network supported by The Task Force’s Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Interventions Network (TEPHINET). As a former advisor to Taiwan FETP, Chen sees the benefit of a global vaccinologist network that could help countries establish quick immunization planning, equitable vaccination administration, vaccine safety and strong workforce capacity for all vaccine-preventable diseases.

Photos courtesy of Meng-Yu Chen.

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