In a village in Indian-administered Kashmir, health worker Masrat Farid packs her bag with vaccines on a frigid morning as strong winds sweep snow through the air.
She is part of a team of health workers undertaking a door-to-door campaign in the region to inoculate teenagers in the age group of 15 to 18 and give booster shots to people above age 60 with health problems as part of a new phase of vaccination that began this month.
“We have to fight the infection. We have to keep going,” Farid said as she made her way through the knee-high snow in Gagangir, a hamlet lying among Himalayan forests.
Farid and her colleagues have vaccinated thousands in the last year, mostly in villages that they reach by trekking long distances across rugged countryside.
But bone-chilling cold and snowy inhospitable terrain are not their only obstacles.
Some residents are still vaccine-hesitant and winning their trust is more difficult than braving the Himalayan winter.
“Most young girls are hesitant, fuelled by misinformation and mistrust,” Farid said. She was referring to the false belief that the vaccine affects or even prevents pregnancy.
“We are not only inoculating them against the coronavirus, we must also educate them about the vaccines to earn their trust,” she said.
The boosters, which Indian health officials call a “precautionary” shot, are being given to high-risk groups who were among the first to receive vaccines last year and whose immunity may be waning.
Jaffar Ali, a health official, said the top challenge so far this year has been the harsh weather – unlike last year when some of his colleagues were harassed by locals during the campaign, as many residents thought the shots caused impotence, serious side effects or could even kill.
So far, health workers have fully vaccinated more than 72 percent of eligible people out of the region’s 14-million population, according to official data.
Health officials recently hiked to some villages which were cut off from the nearest towns due to heavy snowfall and vaccinated residents there, including Khag, a forested village where the residents are mostly tribal and live in houses made from mud, stone or wood.
Arsha Begum, an elderly blind woman, expressed her gratitude as a medical team visited her home and gave her a booster shot inside her house.
“It would not have been possible for me to go to a hospital in this harsh weather. I am immensely thankful to them,” she said.