“We don’t work with individuals alone; we work with entire societies. We protect people from infectious diseases. Vaccinating newborns and contributing to people’s well-being in this way is a big motivation for me,” says Dr Vazira Muminova, a passionate advocate for immunization and Head of the Immunoprophylaxis Department of the Sanitary and Epidemiological Welfare and Public Health Service in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Dr Muminova graduated from Tashkent Medical Institute in 1989 and has dedicated most of her professional life to the topic of immunization. Over the course of nearly three decades, she has navigated the ever-changing landscape of public health, witnessing the profound transformative influence of vaccines on society.
“When I first started working, we registered 1000 cases of whooping cough. Remarkably, for the past three years, not a single instance of whooping cough has been reported – consider this achievement for the entire Tashkent city, which boasts a population of over three million. This remarkable decline in cases is all thanks to vaccination. These tangible signs of progress continually remind me of why I love my work and its crucial role in our society,” says Dr Muminova.
Immunization training for healthcare workers
Dr. Muminova and her colleague, Dr Nasiba Tairova, participated in a training programme within a project co-funded by the European Union (EU) and WHO/Europe. The training sessions focused on key topics, including proper vaccine storage, administration and handling, and addressing adverse events following immunization. Participants learned about the communication skills required for effective interaction with the public. According to a recent WHO study, health workers expressed increased confidence in recommending vaccinations after completing the training on communicating with patients about COVID-19 vaccination.
Dr Tairova echoes Dr Muminova’s enthusiasm and shares a similar journey. She has dedicated 28 of her 35 years of experience to immunization efforts. Dr Tairova speaks proudly of her involvement in lowering the prevalence of vaccine-preventable diseases and emphasizes the significance of training healthcare professionals to ensure safe and effective vaccinations.
“When we introduced the vaccine against rotavirus, we saw a sharp decline in mortality rates. This achievement was truly remarkable. Behind this success stood the dedicated effort of our healthcare professionals, whom we had trained on vaccination protocols. This progress highlights the pivotal role they play in the success of any vaccination programme, effectively safeguarding public health,” she says.
Empowering health professionals
The training, led by WHO and supported financially by the EU, has played a vital role in equipping healthcare professionals with the most current knowledge and skills required for successful immunization efforts.
Dr Tairova emphasizes the importance of continuous training, particularly for young healthcare professionals: “We must provide ongoing training to these young healthcare practitioners, especially because of the relatively high turnover within this field. Being the primary caregivers for the population, they are often the first point of contact and thus the face of the clinic itself. Their communication skills, knowledge about vaccinations, and ability to handle patient queries are crucial. The training sessions not only help to maintain a high standard of care but also ensure the sustainability of the immunization programme’s efficiency and effectiveness over time.”
Addressing vaccine hesitancy
Tackling vaccine hesitancy, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, remains a challenge. Health care professionals face this challenge directly and their experiences highlight the pivotal role of clear and empathetic communication in countering vaccine misinformation and disinformation.
“Several years ago, we were tasked with increasing the uptake of polio vaccination in the Luli minority community. Initially, many parents were reluctant to get their children vaccinated, suggesting that they would do so upon their return to their home area in 4–5 months,” Dr Tairova recalls. “By engaging in a dialogue with their community leader and showcasing the vaccination’s impact, we succeeded in persuading them about the urgency of immediate vaccination. The result was astonishing. When we arrived the following day for vaccination, approximately 40 women with their children were already waiting for us. This was a successful instance underscoring the significance of strategic and effective communication in increasing vaccination rates.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic developed, Dr Tairova and Dr Muminova harnessed their experience and interpersonal skills to increase immunization coverage among older adults. Dr Tairova recalls the targeted workshops they conducted, focusing on enhancing the communication skills of health care professionals, which led to a spike in vaccine uptake among those aged over 65 years.
Dr Dilorom Tursunova, National Manager of the Expanded Immunization Program of the Ministry of Health of Uzbekistan – and a mentor to Dr Muminova and Dr Tairova – also participated in the EU/WHO train-the-trainers programme. “Within the project we have engaged over 40 trainers who then cascaded this knowledge across all regions,” she explains. “Our focus was to bridge the vaccine gap among the elderly – shown to be at highest risk, yet displaying minimal vaccine uptake. Despite our wide outreach through local institutional channels, the initial uptake was low. After the training, we intensified our efforts, revisiting households, each time addressing concerns and building trust. The outcomes were quite revealing. From an initial 17% vaccine uptake among the elderly, we saw an increase to 25%, then 40%, and now, remarkably, 94%. The increase in vaccine coverage stands as evidence of our continuous endeavours. Beyond COVID-19, these training sessions have also uplifted our routine immunization figures across various age groups”.
Partnering with the EU to boost vaccine acceptance
These capacity-building activities have been part of a project co-funded by the EU and the WHO Regional Office for Europe. The initiative aims to bolster healthcare systems across five Central Asian countries, including Uzbekistan. Since its launch in October 2022, the project has focused on increasing COVID-19 vaccination uptake, developing and implementing routine immunization plans, training healthcare workers, and strengthening immunization information systems.