By Sharon Atieno

Though shortage of COVID-19 vaccines continues to be a challenge plaguing the war against the novel coronavirus in Africa, vaccine hesitancy influenced by safety concerns, government mistrust and misinformation among others factors is worsening the situation.

According to recent data from the World Health Organization (WHO) only 20 million Africans are fully vaccinated, representing 1.5% of the continent’s population compared with over 50% in some high-income countries.

Studies continue to show growing numbers of key populations who are not ready or willing to take the vaccine despite its availability.

In Ghana, a research led by the University of Southampton found that the hesitancy rates are at 71.4% with respondents citing indecisiveness or unwillingness to take the jab due to lack of enough information, mistrust in the government and belief that the vaccine is dangerous.

These findings are similar with those of two studies conducted by Amref Health Africa in Kenya on the youths and community health volunteers (CHVs), the latter serving as a focal point between the community and the government.

According to these studies, hesitancy rates are at 58% and 19% among youths and CHVs respectively, with lack of information and concerns over vaccine safety being the main cause.

Both country studies reveal that education level play a significant role in the vaccine hesitancy whereby the most educated (above secondary levels) tend to be more hesitant compared to those who have achieved secondary or lower education.

Also, all the studies found that gender is a predictor for hesitancy with females being more hesitant than males. In Ghana, the odds of hesitancy were almost two times higher in females than in males. There was a 27.1% hesitancy in males and 34.4% hesitancy in females, according to the report.

Speaking during a virtual briefing held by Africa Science Media Centre (AfriSMC) where the findings of the Ghana study was being shared, Dr Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health at Southampton who also worked on the report, noted that the reluctance to accept the vaccine was also influenced by vaccine talks from the Global North where there was an indecision surrounding the roll out of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in Europe and North America.

“The COVID-19 vaccines will be the key tools that underpin the global route out of the pandemic. Therefore, an observed increase in hesitancy gives some cause for concern. The actions of how we in Europe and North America handle these vaccines is seen all over the world, and we don’t want the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine to be widely viewed as ineffective or dangerous, when the evidence shows it is safe and effective,” he said.

The studies from both countries also observed that many people were getting their information from internet more so, social media. In Kenya, 40.3% of youths rely on social media while in Ghana, 73.9% of the population used social media as their source of information, according to the studies.

Dr. Kirchuffs Atengble, Executive Director of PACKS Africa speaking on the Ghana report noted the need for health promotion and public health messaging especially through the media. The media should be more critical in assessing information being disseminated, he advised.

About 60 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines are set to arrive in the coming weeks from the United States of America, Team Europe, the United Kingdom, purchased doses and other partners through the COVAX Facility.

Speaking during a weekly briefing, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional Director for Africa said  that in order to boost the uptake of vaccines, African countries must address the fear of side-effects which are major drivers of people’s reluctance to get vaccinated. This includes using political and traditional leaders as vaccine champions, community mobilization efforts and addressing mis- and disinformation on social media.