Fears around vaccines could pose a danger, health experts warn
Johannesburg - Health experts have warned that the growing trend of high-profile politicians and other officials speaking negatively about vaccines could pose a danger for the country's vaccine roll-out strategy.
The fears come as South Africa is expected to start receiving its first batch of Covid-19 vaccines which are earmarked for health-care workers, according to the Department of Health.
In the past few weeks, as announcements about the government's plan to vaccinate citizens were released, several high-profile figures or politicians have spoken out against vaccines.
Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng was one of the high-ranking official to raise eyebrows as he cast doubt on vaccinations and a possible link to the devil. Political parties, such as the ACDP, have been criticised for suggesting the use of baby shampoo to treat Covid-19 patients, and UDM leader Bantu Holomisa suggested people make use of a traditional medicine concoction to help them avoid contracting Covid-19.
Experts agree that the claims made by high-ranking individuals don’t bode well for the country's efforts to vaccinate a sizeable proportion of the population in order to achieve herd immunity.
Dr Benjamin Kagina, a research officer and vaccinologist at UCT's Vaccines For Africa Initiative, said the information being peddled was concerning.
"Vaccines on the shelves do not save lives,“ he said. ”It is actually those vaccines being taken to the public that needs to be vaccinated – that is what saves lives.
“Misinformation is a huge concern to all of us. The more people feel they distrust the vaccine, the less likely people will want to be vaccinated and the more difficult it will be for the government to roll out the vaccines," Kagina said.
Wits professor of vaccinology Shabir Madhi said the country was in a difficult position, especially with 53% of the population having indicated their willingness to take the vaccine. He criticised the government's late response to educating the public on vaccines.
"South Africa is in a difficult position. We know that only 53% of adults have indicated that they would be willing to be vaccinated. The reason for that is because we have not had a robust engagement with society in terms of the importance of Covid-19 vaccines.
"That is something that should be led by the government and should have started months before. There has not been a strong message from the government until very recently," Madhi said.
Dr Aslma Dasoo, from the Progressive Health Forum, said what could possibly counter the growth of the anti-vaccine movement was a strong focus on a collaboration between the government and civil society organisations, which often had massive outreach to communities and could better explain the need for a Covid-19 vaccine.
“You need these community-based organisations who can explain to people. You have to give the messaging to people in a language they are comfortable with. You cannot just depend on the government to do this. A very key component is civil society, but civil society has to be at the top of the table. They must be there at the planning stage and the strategic planning," he said.
Another positive, Dasoo said, was the possibility of a decrease in vaccine hesitancy once people saw their fellow health professionals being vaccinated. Health professionals are expected to be part of the first group of priority individuals who will receive the Covid-19 vaccines.
"When people see their doctors and nurses take the vaccine, I think that will reduce vaccine hesitancy quite dramatically. There are always going to be those who refuse, and that is their right.
“We know the ’anti-vaxxers’ are a small number, but if we can remove that uncertainty we can easily see that most of the population feel comfortable in taking the vaccine," Dasoo said.