By Mary Hearty

Vaccine hesitancy still remains a major barrier towards increasing the uptake of the COVID-19 vaccines in Africa as misinformation such as vaccine failure caused by the expedited research and development of the vaccines continues to circulate particularly around social media platforms.

For instance, Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health at Southampton recently wrote in a policy brief representing vaccine roll out in the UK that there have been poor-quality articles shared around social media platforms in Ghana that suggest vaccine failure around the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the United Kingdom (UK).

Although public health interventions such as sharing evidence-based information, educating the public on the importance of the vaccines have been put in place to help address this concern, a larger portion of the population is still skeptical including the health workers hence this slows down the roll out of vaccines.

Speaking during a media briefing with Africa Science Media Centre (AfriSMC) themed: the Current Status of the COVID-19 Vaccine Roll Out and Causes of Hesitancy in Africa, Prof Omu Anzala, Virology and Immunology Professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology at the University of Nairobi, Kenya suggested that other strategies could be legal interventions such as mandatory vaccination, and issuing of vaccine certificates to help accelerate the vaccines roll out in Africa.

He said: “If public health interventions fail to work, then other strategies could be legal interventions like mandatory vaccination in some countries, and issuing certificates especially to those travelling.”

Prof Anzala explained that COVID-19 vaccines are designed to  prevent infection and disease, But if one gets the disease, the vaccine can also prevent severe disease that can lead to hospitalization, death and transmission.

To ensure elimination of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, he also called for continuous observation of the public health measures put in place to help prevent the spread of the virus such as masking, social distancing, sanitation, and isolation, noting that people have become reluctant in observing these measures.

Regarding vaccine safety, Prof Anzala clarified that when vaccines are tested throughout the three phases; any possible side effects are normally looked at critically.

“Studies have been done to examine the safety of the vaccines and as phase three is ongoing we are already in phase four where pharmacovigilance becomes a critical issue in order to examine the side effects on the larger population.”

Clotting of the blood, Prof. Anzala said has been one of the side effects observed. On the other hand, he assured the public that COVID-19 vaccines have no side effects on the reproductive system including erectile dysfunction.

“The side effects that we have seen are very minor,” he said. These include fever, fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, soreness at the point of injection, diarrhoea and chills among others.

Currently, Africa has only vaccinated 60 million people out of 1.37 billion people across the continent Whereas high-income countries like the US, Germany, Brazil, the UK, China, Italy, Japan, Canada just to mention a few, have already surpassed the global end-year target, with Chile, Spain and Singapore having vaccinated at least 80% of their population.

For countries which are on track to have vaccinated 40% of their population with at least one dose by the end of 2021 in Africa, are Morocco and Tunisia while a country like Kenya has only vaccinated 5.4% of its population.

Besides, statistics shows that there were upward trends of vaccine roll out in Africa across the early months until where about 1.5 million doses were being given out. However, as of October 2021, the roll out has dropped drastically.

At the moment, statistics show that 6.4 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered globally, with 23 million doses being administered each day globally, and about 46% of the global population has received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Globally, the vaccines that have been administered the most include: PfizerBioNTech, Moderna, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Johnson and Johnson, Sputnik V, and the Sinopharm vaccine.

He noted that COVID-19 has brought crucial lessons in the field of vaccine which Africa needs to learn including early preparation and planning, a strategy which was used by Europe and North America enabling them to purchase more vaccines for their populace.

Prof. Anzala added that funding is also a crucial element of planning as vaccines are very expensive to manufacture and buy.

“We should have thought of setting aside some money to start pre-ordering the vaccines even before they reached phase three of development,” he said.

Prof Anzala said that despite Africans being accustomed to giving vaccines to children and not adults, leveraging on the existing health systems is necessary to ensure more people are vaccinated.

He emphasized the need for partnership between the public and private sectors, highlighting that is vital to ensure delivery and administration of the vaccines within the continent.