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Vaccine hesitancy slows Africa’s coronavirus inoculation drive

FILE PHOTO: A healthcare worker talks to her colleagues as they prepare to receive the AstraZeneca / Oxford vaccine under the COVAX scheme against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya, March 5 from 2021. REUTERS / Monicah Mwangi

When Edith Serem received her COVID-19 vaccine last month at a hospital in Nairobi where she works as a doctor, nurses jokingly warned that she might start speaking in a foreign language.

Serem said some colleagues received the AstraZeneca injection after observing it closely for several days to see if it was okay, but others declined, still wary of possible side effects.

Health experts worry that public skepticism about taking the relatively small number of doses that African countries have struggled to achieve could prolong a pandemic that has already killed more than 3.3 million people worldwide.

“I am not an anti-vaccine… I have my children vaccinated up to date with everything there is, but this one? I don’t feel comfortable, ”said a doctor in Kenya, who declined to be identified because she was not authorized to speak to the media.

“If there is no data on long-term effects, then we are all being guinea pigs. What happens in 10 years after this vaccine? “

The so-called vaccine hesitancy is a global phenomenon. France and the United States are struggling with it and skepticism is on the rise in some Asian countries like Japan.

In Africa, health experts say a combination of warnings about possible rare blood clots, wasted vaccines by some leaders, and mixed messages about expiration dates have contributed to slow rollout across the continent.

COVID-19 has also not affected the 1.3 billion people of Africa as it has devastated some countries in Europe, Brazil, the United States and India, leaving some on the continent doubting the severity of the disease.

The official death toll in Africa is now 121,000, lower than in the UK alone.

Last week, Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC Africa) Director John Nkengasong again implored citizens to be vigilant and called India’s COVID-19 disaster a call. of attention.

ANGRY AND SUSPICIOUS

While Ghana and Rwanda have almost finished administering the doses they received last month, implementation in some countries is so slow that it could take years to use the limited vaccines they have, let alone inoculate their adult populations.

Kenya, for example, began vaccinating 400,000 frontline health workers and other essential workers in early March after receiving more than one million doses of AstraZeneca from the COVAX global vaccine exchange program.

By April 25, Kenya had only vaccinated 152,700 health workers, data from the Ministry of Health shows.

Chibanzi Mwachonda, director of Kenya’s main doctors union, said the government had now offered the doses more widely due to the slow adoption of the vaccines, which the United Nations says will expire on June 28.

Health workers were already angry and distrustful that the government had not provided enough protective equipment, Mwachonda said. Now, many felt the government had not adequately addressed concerns about possible side effects, he said.

The Kenyan Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for comment.

Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, received its first shipment of 3.92 million injections of AstraZeneca on March 2. By April 23, just over 1.15 million doses had been administered.

At that rate, it could take until mid-August to use the doses and almost a decade to vaccinate the adult population. The vaccines will expire on July 9, a government official said.

Chika Offor, founder of the advocacy group for the Vaccine Network for Disease Control in Abuja, said the decision by some European governments to restrict or stop using AstraZeneca injections had compounded Nigeria’s fears.

In Côte d’Ivoire, vaccination centers have been calmer than expected, raising fears that doses will not be used when they expire in June, two health workers from the National Institute of Public Hygiene told Reuters.

The West African country vaccinated 105,110 people between March 1 and April 21 after receiving an initial shipment of 504,000 doses. At that rate, it would take more than two years to use the 1.7 million doses it has ordered from COVAX so far.

Health workers said that some centers in Abobo, a suburb of Abidjan’s main city, only received 20 people a day for injections. In Treichville, a densely populated area of ​​the city, Reuters saw inactive healthcare workers without patients.

Joseph Benie, director of the hygiene institute, said they had issued public statements about the safety of the vaccine.

PUBLIC CONFUSION

Meanwhile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo received 1.7 million doses of AstraZeneca from COVAX in early March.

It delayed its launch after several European countries suspended the vaccine to investigate rare blood clots, but 10 days after its inoculation campaign began, only 1,300 people in a country of 85 million had received an injection.

The government is now returning 1.3 million doses to COVAX before they expire.

Nkengasong of the Africa CDC said the slow uptake in the Congo did not surprise him, as a CDC Africa survey found that only 60% of Congolese wanted the vaccine compared to 90% of Ethiopians.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the African CDC have repeatedly warned that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh the risks.

However, some African leaders have denounced the shootings, including the recently deceased president of Tanzania, Nigerian state governors and the head of a South African nurses union.

Conflicting messages about vaccine expiration dates have added to the confusion.

The WHO and Africa’s CDC urged African countries not to waste donated vaccines after Malawi said it would destroy more than 16,000 doses of AstraZeneca with an expiration date of April 13.

Nkengasong said an analysis by the Serum Institute of India, which made the doses, showed they could be used until July 13, but WHO Africa Director Matshidiso Moeti said they should be stored until more information is available. .

“Random vaccine drops are dangerous,” said Irungu Houghton, Executive Director of Amnesty International Kenya. “The public confusion right now really fuels skepticism about vaccines.”

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