The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has fully vaccinated 90 percent of its eligible adult population within just seven days, after receiving vaccines via foreign donations, its health ministry has said.
The tiny country, wedged between India and China and home to nearly 800,000 people, began giving out second doses on July 20 in a mass drive that has been hailed by UNICEF as “arguably the fastest vaccination campaign to be executed during a pandemic”.
UNICEF’s Bhutan representative, Will Parks, told AFP news agency the ambitious vaccination drive is a “great success story for Bhutan”.
“We really need a world in which the countries which have surplus vaccines really do donate to those countries that haven’t received (shots) so far,” he told AFP in the capital Thimphu.
“And if there’s anything that I hope the world that can learn, is that a country like Bhutan with very few doctors, very few nurses but a really committed king and leadership in the government mobilising society – it’s not impossible to vaccinate the whole country.”
The tiny nation had quickly used up most of the 550,000 AstraZeneca jabs donated by India in late March and early April for first jabs before the neighbouring country halted exports over a huge local surge in infections.
Faced with a growing time gap between first and second doses, Bhutan launched an appeal for donations.
Half a million Moderna doses were donated by the United States via COVAX – the distributor backed by the World Health Organization and the Gavi vaccine alliance – and another 250,000 AstraZeneca shots from Denmark arrived in mid-July.
More than 150,000 AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Sinopharm shots are also expected to arrive in the South Asian nation of 770,000 people from Croatia, Bulgaria, China and other countries.
The government has meanwhile bought 200,000 Pfizer doses that are expected to be delivered later this year.
Bhutan, famous for measuring gross national happiness, has reported just less than 2,500 COVID-19 infections and two deaths so far.
Strong and effective messaging
Many Western countries with far more resources are yet to vaccinate such a high rate of eligible adults.
Health experts say Bhutan’s small population helped, but the country also benefitted from strong and effective messaging from top officials and an established cold chain storage system.
More than 3,000 health workers participated and 1,200 vaccination centres across the country helped ensure that shots reached every eligible adult.
Bhutan’s government is also led by medical practitioners. The prime minister, the foreign minister and the health minister are all medical professionals. And frequent messaging from the government, which directly answers questions from the public about the coronavirus and vaccinations on Facebook, also helped combat vaccine hesitancy among citizens.
Its prime minister, Lotay Tshering, and monarch, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, were also early advocates of the vaccine, which allayed fears surrounding the rollout. The king also toured the country to raise awareness about the vaccination drive.
Bhutan is the last remaining Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, but it has transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a democratic, constitutional monarchy.
Another crucial ingredient in the vaccine drive is the country’s extensive network of citizen volunteers called “desuups”, said Will Parks, the UNICEF representative for Bhutan.
Some 22,000 citizens volunteered over the last year and a half to raise awareness, dispel misinformation, help conduct mass screening and testing and even carry vaccines across the country’s difficult terrain, he said.
Bhutan’s success is an anomaly in South Asia where countries such as India and Bangladesh are struggling to ramp up their vaccination rates.
Experts say it underscores the importance of richer countries donating vaccines to the developing world and highlights just how big an effect the government and community outreach can have.