Fold mountains

AP PHOTOS: Vaccinators walk in the snow-capped mountains of Kashmir

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — In a Himalayan village in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, young health worker Masrat Farid packed…

SRINAGAR, India (AP) — In a Himalayan village in Indian-controlled Kashmir, young health worker Masrat Farid packed her bag of vaccines on a freezing January morning as high winds blew snow into the air .

She is part of a team of health workers undertaking a door-to-door campaign in the region to distribute vaccines to adolescents and boosters to the elderly in remote mountain villages.

“We have to fight the infection. We have to keep going,” said Farid as she made her way through knee-deep snow in Gagangeer, a hamlet between forests.

Farid and his colleagues vaccinated thousands of people last year, mostly in villages they reach by walking long distances across rugged countryside.

But the freezing cold and the inhospitable snowy terrain are not their only obstacles.

Some locals are still reluctant to get vaccinated and gaining their trust is more difficult than braving the Himalayan winter.

“Most young girls are hesitant, fueled by misinformation and mistrust,” Farid said during a recent vaccination campaign in a snowy mountain village. She was referring to the false belief that the vaccine impacts or even prevents pregnancy.

“We don’t just inoculate them against the coronavirus, we also have to educate them about the vaccines to gain their trust,” she said.

In a new phase that began this month, health workers are vaccinating teenagers aged 15 to 18 and giving boosters to people over 60 with health problems.

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 declining.

Jaffar Ali, a health official, said the main challenge so far this year has been bad weather – unlike last year when some of his colleagues were harassed by locals during the vaccination campaign, as many locals believed the beating 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 people, according to official data.

Health officials recently walked to some villages cut off from nearest towns due to heavy snowfall and vaccinated residents, including Khag, a forested village where residents are mostly tribal and live in mud, stone or wooden houses.

Arsha Begum, an elderly blind woman, expressed her gratitude when 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 the hospital in this harsh weather. I am immensely grateful to them,” she said.

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