SUKTH – There's hardly any home in Albania's Sukth distict where Ndricim Rahi and Anila Shameti have not injected someone with vaccines or given them other medical treatments during their 30 years as nurses.
Yet despite their deep local contacts, they and other medical workers in the economically struggling Balkan nation are finding it a tough challenge to counter the superstitions, conspiracy theories on television and social media, and general vaccine skepticism in the region and convince locals that now, before winter, is the time to get a vaccine shot. Albania has launched a nationwide campaign going into homes to get vaccine shots to people.
“Doors are open when we go now, but if we ask them to take the COVID-19 vaccine, not all accept it,” a smiling Rahi says, climbing down from his motorbike, which he uses for house calls.
“We insist, make telephone calls and convince many of them,” adds Shameti.
For Dr. Mirian Beu and his team, continuous contacts and personal medical advice have been their daily tools during these hard pandemic times to inoculate 50-70 people a day.
“It is superstitions or conspiracy theories they believe in and listen to, especially with the media spread nowadays,” said Beu, 36.
Those with chronic diseases are contacted and convinced by phone to get their shots. Others are persuaded when they visit the health center for other medical issues and about one-third of those getting vaccine shots each day get them at their homes from a team of three nurses.
“With my health, suffering from diabetes and who knows what else at this age, the vaccine is a strong weapon in my body,” a bearded 69-year old Mezit Jahjolli said after taking his booster shot. Still he said five of his brothers have declined to get vaccinated.
About 45% of the 32,000 people in Sukth, 33 kilometers (20 miles) west of the capital of Tirana, have been fully immunized and some even have had booster shots, in contrast to the situation elsewhere in the country.
Albania was among the first in the Western Balkans to start vaccinations in early March but so far only one-third of its 2.8 million people have had two shots of the Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Sinovac or Sputnik V vaccines. Prime Minister Edi Rama has posted calls from well-known personalities on his Facebook page to try to convince the more than 60% of Albanians who are still unvaccinated to get their shots.
The virus has killed 3,004 Albanians and there are 8,317 COVID-19 patients now, according to the Health Ministry.
The challenges these medical workers face are varied. It was mandatory for students to get vaccinated at start of the school year in October, but very few complied, causing tensions. Albania still has an overnight curfew and mandatory mask wearing indoors, but the only place this is really enforced is at banks.
After a good start earlier this year, giving up to 150 vaccine shots a day, the numbers in Sukth fell significantly, especially during the August-September surge in which the area saw up to 900 new infections a day, according to Aurora Hyka, health department chief of the Durres district that includes Sukth.
People may be reluctant to get shots even though medical workers say many do accept the fact that unvaccinated people often suffer worse infections than vaccinated ones.
“It is a complex work needed with each individual to convince them,” said psychologist Marvina Troka. “We should coordinate our work not only among us but also with other actors, like the local officials or religious leaders.”
Sali Hasa, 50, the imam in the nearby village of Vadardhe, said vaccines are a main topic of discussion after Friday prayers.
“In quiet discussions, we aim to help people to understand that the vaccine is the best they can do to fight the virus,” he says. “Before the vaccine was produced, there was a big problem. After it was produced, hope came in. I do hope that those (unvaccinated) people understand such a good thing.”
Hyka praised the daily, constant efforts by medical workers.
“Coordinating doctors, nurses, community leaders and other players has produced positive results, with a stable or slight increase in the daily jabs,” said Hyka. “Though it’s not easy for them to cope with ... the superstitions and conspiracies.”
Still, a middle-aged man who said on the phone that he would get a vaccine shot declined to do it once he saw journalists at his apartment along with the medics. Shameti, the nurse, was not worried.
“He is not a problem. He is convinced but doesn’t like you, the journalists,” Shameti said, adding that Rahi, the other nurse, "will go there alone tomorrow, and he will do it.”
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