‘The benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks’
The World Health Organization’s Representative in Mongolia Sergey Diorditsa gave an exclusive interview regarding important timely issues such as Mongolia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine rollout, and conditions at hospitals and isolation facilities.
The vaccination rollout brought about high hopes among the people, but the government announced in early April that vaccination would be postponed due to delays in vaccine delivery. As a health expert, can the second shot of the vaccine be delayed? How should the government continue the vaccination rollout?
Mongolia is planning to vaccinate at least 60 percent of its population against COVID-19. On February 23, 2021, Mongolia launched the COVID-19 vaccine rollout with around 150,000 AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses, prioritizing health workers at high risk. More doses of COVID-19 vaccines are now available for other priority groups, including older adults and high-risk people.
WHO continues to support the government of Mongolia and the Ministry of Health in its preparation and readiness for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and vaccination campaign.
The availability of the second dose of COVID-19 vaccine can be impacted by many factors, including supply and shipment delays. Countries will need to decide how they want to move forward to vaccinate their population, whether they will use their existing supply for first doses and await further shipments to provide supply for second doses, or complete both rounds for a smaller number of people. Several countries are using an extended interval policy in order to maximize the coverage of first doses, though evidence for intervals beyond those recommended by WHO are limited or lacking.
The government of Mongolia continues to vaccinate health workers by the second dose in order to save lives and maintain health care capacity and essential health care services. Health workers are the most exposed people, and WHO will continue to support Mongolia.
Although vaccines alone will not end the pandemic, they are an extremely important additional tool in strengthening the response to COVID-19 when used in combination with the other measures we know work. Everyone will need to continue to maintain physical distance, ensure hand hygiene, stay home when sick, and avoid crowded spaces – all the behaviors we have been practicing over the past year.
How many doses of vaccines are expected to arrive in Mongolia in the near future?
Mongolia has received 64,800 doses of AstraZeneca-Oxford and 25,740 doses of Pfizer/ BioTech vaccines through the COVAX Facility since March 2021. This will contribute to immunization of up to 20 percent of the 3.2 million population of Mongolia. More vaccines are expected to arrive by the second quarter of this year.
Some people are still hesitant about getting vaccinated. What would you advise them?
People are often hesitant when faced with new things. This pandemic is new to us – it has disrupted our lives. Working as quickly as they can, scientists from across the world are collaborating and innovating to bring us tests, treatments and vaccines that will collectively save lives and end this pandemic. However, the pandemic still has a long way to run. Intense transmission is ongoing and is putting enormous pressure on hospitals, intensive care units and health workers. Decisions made by leaders and citizens in the coming weeks will determine when the acute phase of the pandemic will end.
COVID-19 vaccines have gone through robust clinical trials, and are only approved for use after their safety and efficacy have been rigorously tested and the benefits are shown to outweigh the risks. As with any vaccine or medicine, adverse reactions are possible after receiving a vaccine. This may include common side effects such as redness and soreness at the injection site, mild fever or body aches, which go away on their own after a few days. Serious vaccine reactions are very rare, and it is important to ensure that strong surveillance systems are in place.
Mongolia has a well-established system that was renewed for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. The benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks. I’d like to encourage everyone to be well informed and to get information from reliable sources about vaccines.
There is also the issue of the condition at hospitals and isolation facilities. Has WHO reviewed their operations and conditions?
WHO has been working very closely with the Ministry of Health and State Emergency Committee since the beginning of the pandemic. Hospital and isolation facility preparedness is crucial in the response plan, and these are included in Mongolia’s national response plan. WHO issues guidelines on how to prepare isolation facilities, their requirements, especially in terms of infection prevention control, hospital readiness checklist, and hospital preparedness guideline, including interim guidelines on all aspects of infection prevention control. The government has issued a number of national interim guidelines, which are in line with WHO guidelines reflecting the implementation issues in the national context. The WHO Country Office has been providing support not only in the development of national interim guidelines, but also in its implementation and monitoring activities. For example, last year we went to several provinces and family health centers together with the Ministry of Health and Ulaanbaatar City Health Department to prepare primary health care providers and province hospitals and conducted simulation exercises.
Hospitals are being prepared and are functional to receive COVID-19 patients according to the stage plan of the ministry. One of our key activities with the ministry is organizing joint visits to hospitals and districts to strengthen their preparedness. Yesterday (May 2), we went to Nalaikh District together to see the situation.
Now the main challenge for hospitals is human resource shortage and bed capacity at the hospital level, especially capacity to provide intensive care. In relation to this, we are supporting by not only providing technical advice on clinical management, but by also mobilizing resources and procuring essential equipment and devices, and personal protective equipment. In addition, WHO is providing support to strengthen the capacity of health care providers working in health care and isolation facilities through various capacity-building trainings.
COVID-19 isn’t the only concern for WHO. Mongolia has been criticized as being heavily focused on the pandemic response, while COVID-19 lockdowns and regulations are causing more deaths than the virus itself due to other physical and mental illnesses and conditions, increased poverty, malnutrition, crime, and reduced access to healthcare (hospitals require PCR test). How can health care services be provided accessibly and inclusively amid the pandemic? What needs to improve in Mongolia for WHO to work more effectively?
Mongolia has a relatively well-developed health system. For instance, all smallest administrative units, including khoroos and soums, have primary health centers which have a critical role in providing essential health services and COVID-19 related services. I would like to note that, during this challenging time, the government has been taking significant measures toward improving capacity at referral hospitals and primary health centers to ensure accessibility and quality of COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 services. However, there is a need to improve capacity to develop a surge plan and its implementation, especially at province and district hospitals.
When do you think Mongolia and the world will return to “normal”?
We all wish to return to our “normal” life as soon as we can. This pandemic requires collective action and solidarity. We must remember that none of us will be safe until everyone is safe.
The UB Post is marking its 25th anniversary. Would you like to address our readers with a message?
I’d like to congratulate The UB Post team and your readers on your 25th anniversary. Being a long-standing English-language media outlet, you have an important role in connecting Mongolia with the world and the world with Mongolia. I wish you, your team and all the readers good health and prosperity. Thank you.