How Bhutan Out-Vaccinated Many of the World

THIMPHU, Bhutan — The Lunana space of Bhutan is distant even by the requirements of an remoted Himalayan kingdom: It covers an space about twice the scale of New York Metropolis, borders far western China, consists of glacial lakes and a number of the world’s highest peaks, and is inaccessible by automobile.

Nonetheless, most individuals dwelling there have already acquired a coronavirus vaccine.

Vials of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine arrived final month by helicopter and have been distributed by well being staff, who walked from village to village by means of snow and ice. Vaccinations proceeded within the space’s 13 settlements even after yaks broken a number of the discipline tents that volunteers had arrange for sufferers.

“I received vaccinated first to show to my fellow villagers that the vaccine doesn’t trigger dying and is secure to take,” Pema, a village chief in Lunana who’s in his 50s and goes by one identify, mentioned by phone. “After that, everybody right here took the jab.”

Will Parks, the representative in Bhutan for UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children, said the first round was a “success story, not only in terms of the coverage but also in the way the vaccination drive was executed collectively from the planning to the implementation.”

“It involved participation from the highest authority to local community,” he said.

The campaign has relied in part on a corps of volunteers, known as the Guardians of the Peace, who operate under the authority of Bhutan’s king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck.

In Lunana, eight volunteers pitched field tents and helped carry oxygen tanks from village to village, said Karma Tashi, a member of the government’s four-person vaccination team there. The tanks were a precaution in case any villagers had adverse reactions to the shots.

To save time, Mr. Tashi said, the team administered vaccines by day and walked between villages by night — often for 10 to 14 hours at a time.

The yak damage to the tents wasn’t the only hiccup. Some villagers did not initially show up to be vaccinated because they were busy harvesting barley, or because they worried about possible side effects. “But after we told them about the benefits, they agreed,” Mr. Tashi said.

As of April 12, 464 of Lunana’s 800 or so residents had gotten a first dose, according to government data. The population figure includes minors who are not eligible for vaccines.

Health care in Bhutan, a landlocked country that is slightly larger than Maryland and borders Tibet, is free. Between 1960 and 2014, life expectancy there more than doubled, to 69.5 years, according to the World Health Organization. Immunization levels in recent years have been above 95 percent.

But Bhutan’s health system is “hardly self-sustainable,” and patients who need expensive or sophisticated treatments are often sent to India or Thailand at the government’s expense, said Dr. Yot Teerawattananon, a Thai health economist at the National University of Singapore.

A government committee in Bhutan meets once a week to make decisions about which patients to send overseas for treatment, Dr. Yot said. He said the committee — which focuses on brain and heart surgery, kidney transplants and cancer treatment — was known informally as the “death panel.”

“I don’t suppose they might deal with the surge of extreme Covid circumstances if that occurred, so it’s important for them to prioritize Covid vaccination,” he mentioned, referring to Bhutan’s well being authorities.

Bhutan has reported fewer than 1,000 coronavirus infections and just one dying. Its borders, tight by world requirements even earlier than the pandemic, have been closed for a 12 months with few exceptions, and anybody who enters the nation should quarantine for 21 days.

Chencho Dema reported from Thimphu, and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.

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