Of illiteracy and Covid-19 vaccine in Africa

THE relevance of the COVID‑19 vaccine can never be emphasised. It is the most needed prevention to the deadly coronavirus disease which has killed people and crumbled economies across the world. The COVID 19 vaccine is a vaccine intended to provide acquired immunity against severe acute respiratory syndrome corona virus 2 (SARS‑CoV‑2), the virus causing corona virus disease 2019 (COVID‑19). On 2nd March 2021, Nigeria received nearly 4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine shipped via the COVAX Facility, a partnership between CEPI, Gavi, UNICEF and WHO. The arrival of the vaccine marked a historic step towards the goal to ensure equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines globally, in what will be the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history. The delivery is part of a first wave of arrivals in Nigeria that will continue in the coming days and weeks. COVAX shipped 3.94 million doses of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine, manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII), from Mumbai to Abuja.

Edward Kallon, UN Resident Coordinator in Nigeria, reiterates the commitment of the UN team in Nigeria to support the vaccination campaign in Nigeria and help contain the spread of the virus. According to him, the arrival of the vaccines in Abuja marks a milestone for the COVAX Facility in its unprecedented effort to deliver at least 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines globally by the end of 2021. Meanwhile, conspiracy theories, mistrust and patchy communication have contributed to the flourishing of skepticism about Covid-19 vaccines in African countries which according to experts poses potential dangers to future immunization campaigns. One prevalent conspiracy theory, for example, holds that the Covid-19 vaccines are designed to quell Africa’s population growth. The anti-vaccine sentiment, often fed by rumors spread on social media is already thriving in the West. But a similar dynamic is at play across Africa. According to public health experts on the continent, people are warier of Covid-19 jab than they would be of other vaccines.

Ayoade Alakija, the chief Africa strategist for Convince, also pointed out the high level of skepticism. And this skepticism extends to the tops of some governments too. In late January, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli dismissed covid jabs as “dangerous for our health”.  Many African countries are currently battling a surge in corona virus cases, but few have seen outbreaks as large as in the West, which some argue has led to a decreased sense of urgency. Most African countries are also months away — at best — from beginning vaccination with wealthier countries hovering up supplies in the global vaccine race. In the northern Nigerian city of Kano, 41-year-old Zainab Abdullahi also said she’d refuse a jab. “We are seeing reports of serious side-effects from people who took the shot in the West and they still want to bring the vaccine to us,” she said. The picture isn’t uniform. Waiters in a cafe in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa for example were keen to receive a vaccine because of their risk of contracting the virus. Although hesitancy about new vaccines is common, Mamadou Traore, a vaccination advisor for Medecins Sans Frontieres, said the phenomenon has grown much worse. Richard Mihigo, the World Health Organization’s vaccination coordinator in Africa, pointed out that the continent has historically seen high levels of vaccine acceptance — which he said bodes well for future Covid-19 campaigns.

But rumours linked to the Covid-19 vaccine have also “spread like wildfire” online, he said, and are a “real issue”. In a television interview in April, for example, two French scientists suggested that companies trial vaccines in Africa first — igniting a racism row and feeding longstanding fears about medical exploitation. Much of the misinformation shared in Senegal originates in France, he added, which is the West African state’s former colonial ruler and one of the world’s most vaccine-hesitant countries. It is unfortunate that COVID 19 cases keep surging yet African citizens are adamant over receiving the vaccine. Cheikh Ibrahima Niang, a Senegalese professor of medical anthropology, said that the brutal legacy of the slave trade, plus a history of heavy-handed governments, may explain vaccine hesitancy. Scandals such as the deaths of 11 Nigerian children in 1996, after they were administered an experimental meningitis vaccine by Pfizer, have not been forgotten either. Meanwhile, some national leaders, such as Guinea’s President Alpha Conde, have also broadcast recordings of themselves receiving jabs. Ousseynou Badiane, the head of Senegal’s vaccination program, said that alongside access to vaccines, “fake news” posed one of the largest challenges to his country’s future campaign.

There are few reliable studies on Covid-19 vaccine attitudes in Africa, but preliminary surveys suggest that large groups of people are distrustful. In December, the Africa Centre for Disease Control released the results of an 18-country survey showing that only a quarter of respondents thought Covid-19 vaccines would be safe. African governments need to proactively engage vaccine-hesitant citizens, he said, in a sentiment echoed by other public-health experts. Some are already doing so: Last week, Ethiopia launched a vaccine information campaign to allay concerns. Ayoade Alakija, the vaccine-confidence campaigner, warned of particular difficulties in tackling misconceptions in countries where trust in government is low. She explained that there hasn’t been enough information. The lack of adequate information and enlightenment among Nigerians coupled with the high illiteracy level is the major issue barricading the smooth roll out of the vaccine in Nigeria. However, with sufficient information the masses will be properly positioned to receive the vaccine without fear or skepticism.

  • Fwa writes in via obidahfwa@gmail.coma

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