Medical students deprived of Covid-19 vaccines
Ever since he was a child, Ramesh* knew he wanted to be a doctor to serve society and "do something good for others". Even now, as an MBBS student at B P Koirala Institute of Health Sciences (BPKIHS) in Dharan, his zeal is intact.
As a part of his curriculum, he is required not just to attend lectures but also complete clinical postings. And that is what he was doing till a few days ago when he tested positive for Covid-19.
"I started feeling unwell during the exams, and took a PCR test. The result came out positive. I have been isolating since," Ramesh told us on the phone from Dharan.
In January, when the government announced the priority list for the first round of Covid-19 vaccines, medical interns and doctors were on it. Many admin staff working in the hospitals also qualified for the jab.
However, missing from the list were medical students who work in close proximity with the patients as a part of the curriculum. BDS and MBBS students have to do ward and clinical postings in their third, fourth and fifth years. Nursing students too have hands-on training as part of their course work.
"We all know that wearing a mask is one of the best precautions we can take against Covid. But as dental students, we need to treat patients when they are not wearing masks. The risk of exposure is the same for us as the interns, yet we did not get the vaccine," says a dentistry student from BPKIHS, whose friend recently tested positive as well.
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After the first lockdown, BPKIHS like many others conducted classes online. However, as the country opened up slowly, clinical postings for fourth year students started from 1 December. While they conducted PCR tests for those seeking admission in wards, those coming to the Out Patient Department (OPD) could not be monitored.
"Even in wards, although patients were tested the same was not true for the visitors," says a final year medical student at BPKIHS.
According to the students as many as 25 of these colleagues have tested positive over the past few months. Students say they have talked with the school administration, but were told there was no government protocol to get them the vaccine.
Medical students from other schools that Nepali Times spoke to shared similar stories.
"We would be a little more confident if we were vaccinated," says a medical student from Birat Medical College in Biratnagar. "It is not just about us being exposed or working, we have lost a lot of valuable time in terms of our course work.”
After the first lockdown, classes here went online and the practical classes were conducted without hospital exposure. "But after the third year finals, we were called for clinical postings," says the student. "Maybe they could have given us the vaccine and we could continue with our classes."
It is not just the students, new interns who recently graduated, have entered, or are soon entering the workforce were also left out.
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Gita* is a medical student at Kathmandu University's medical school recently passed her final exams, and is starting her internship. Even though she and friends were omitted from the priority list last year, she was planning to get the Vero Cell jab this time around. Poor planning and overcrowding prevented her from getting vaccinated, then she had to return to school to start her internship.
"New interns who just started last Saturday were left out from the list," says an intern coordinator at a medical school in Biratnagar. "Students don't get the same level of protection as the faculty. We have talked to interns about safety measures and precautions. And we are also looking into simulation-based teaching for practical classes.”
It is not just for the safety of students but the patients as well that the students and new interns need to be vaccinated. When they are vaccinated, they can ensure that the patients are not going to get infected through the ones who are treating them, say the students.
"While the vaccines may not work against the new variants and there are chances of being infected even when you are vaccinated, the severity of symptoms is less," says an intern doctor who tested positive after the second jab.
With the lockdown on 28 April, medical schools have also now suspended classes. Trainee doctors in India are being pulled from the exams to work on the frontline, and Nepal’s medical students may have to do the same.
"Maybe keeping this in mind, they could still give this a serious consideration and vaccinate the students and new interns," says a final year student at BPKIHS.
Spokesperson for Ministry of Health Jageshwor Gautam, however, says that young people are still not a priority. "We are aware of the situation, the reason medical students didn't get vaccines is because there are just not enough doses."
Asked if medical students will be given priority once new vaccines arrive, Gautam replied flatly: "People above 60 years are still a priority. Everyone else comes after that."
*Some names have been changed or withheld for privacy reasons.