A rundown South African railway station has been converted into an unlikely vaccination site where a shiny white train brings jabs to remote areas and boost sluggish uptake.
One by one, people waiting in plastic chairs spaced out across a platform in the town of Springs, 50 kilometres (30 miles) east of Johannesburg, were called to board a vaccine centre on rails — the “Transvaco”.
“We want to try and vaccinate as many people as possible in a short space of time… (and) bring vaccines closer to rural areas,” the train’s manager, Paballo Mokwana, told AFP on Wednesday.
Funded by state logistics firm Transnet, the train has the capacity to jab 600 people per day in a specially-refurbished carriage lined with vaccination cubicles.
Its eight other carriages are used for accommodation, storage, staff dining, electricity generation and other essentials.
After a two-week stint in Springs, the train will set off next month for a three-month swing through impoverished Eastern Cape province.
But less than 100 people have showed up per day since the Transvaco opened its doors on Monday.
The low turnout is largely blamed on lack of awareness and vaccine hesitancy hindering inoculation in Africa’s worst virus-hit country.
Uptake, slightly boosted since the eligible age was lowered from 34 to 18 last week, has remained generally low.
“I’m still too scared,” admitted train station worker Zacharia Matuludi, 28, spraying incomers with hand sanitiser.
“The chemicals… I don’t know how my body will respond to them.”
Sitting in a makeshift post-vaccine observation area on the other side of the platform, 40-year-old Olive Selati said she had delayed the process after hearing “a lot of stories.”
In the background, a health worker briefed a small group of people about vaccine types, precautions and possible side-effects.
A recurring concern is whether the jab could impact anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV, of which South Africa has the world’s highest prevalence.
Between shots, health workers said the government should do more to promote the vaccine and dispel myths.
They also noted that young people were easily put off by needles — which “seem huge” on television — and advice not to drink alcohol after the jab.
Turnout is always lower “on Fridays… because it’s the weekend, they want to go and enjoy themselves,” said vaccinator Bongani Nxumalo.
Mokwana was confident the train would be more successful once the word spread, particularly in areas with poor health coverage.
Just over 8.4 million people have been fully vaccinated in South Africa out of more than 59 million inhabitants.