Ahead of African vaccination campaigns, scepticism takes hold

Dakar: Conspiracy theories, mistrust and patchy communication have contributed to a flourishing of scepticism about COVID-19 vaccines in African countries, experts say, posing potential dangers to future immunisation campaigns.

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Anti-vaccine sentiment, often fed by rumours spread on social media, is already thriving in the West.

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But a similar dynamic is at play across Africa, according to public health experts on the continent, with people warier of COVID-19 jabs than they would be of other vaccines.

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“There’s a high level of scepticism,” said Ayoade Alakija, the chief Africa strategist for Convince, a campaign to encourage confidence in COVID-19 vaccines.

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Explanations for the wariness vary, she explained, noting that suspicion of government elites and vaccine misinformation play a role.

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One prevalent conspiracy theory, for example, holds that the COVID-19 vaccines are designed to quell Africa’s population growth.

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Scepticism extends to the tops of some governments too. In late January, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli dismissed COVID-19 jabs as “dangerous for our health”.

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Andry Rajoelina, the president of the island state of Madagascar, has also touted an untested herbal remedy for COVID-19.

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Many African countries are currently battling a surge in coronavirus cases, but few have seen outbreaks as large as in the West, which some argue has led to a decreased sense of urgency.

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Most African countries are also months away – at best – from beginning vaccinations, with wealthier countries hoovering up supplies in the global vaccine race.

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Misinformation

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Moise Shitu, a 28-year-old who works as a driver in Nigeria’s capital Lagos, told AFP he would refuse a vaccine.

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“Our government is into fraud,” he said. “They are saying there is coronavirus in Nigeria to make money”.

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In the northern Nigerian city of Kano, 41-year-old Zainab Abdullahi also said she’d refuse a jab.

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“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.

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The picture isn’t uniform. Waiters interviewed in a cafe in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa were keen to receive a vaccine because of their risk of contracting the virus, for example.

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Although hesitancy about new vaccines is common, Mamadou Traore, a vaccination advisor for Medecins Sans Frontieres, said the phenomenon has grown “much worse”.

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“People told themselves this isn’t an illness that affects black people,” he said. “It is governments’ job to dispute all this misinformation”.

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‘Spread like wildfire’

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There are few reliable studies on COVID-19 vaccine attitudes in Africa, but preliminary surveys suggest that large groups of people are wary.

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In December, the Africa Centres 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.

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Still, the study found few vaccine denialists: about 79 percent said they would take a “safe” shot.

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Richard Mihigo, the World Health Organisation’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.

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But rumours linked to the COVID-19 vaccine have also “spread like wildfire” online, he said, and are a “real issue”.

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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.

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“People said: ‘Yeah you see, now we can confirm that Africans are guinea pigs,’” Mihigo said, noting that the affair did “a lot of damage”.

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Ousseynou Badiane, the head of Senegal’s vaccination programme, said that alongside access to vaccines, “fake news” posed one of the largest challenges to his country’s future campaign.

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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.

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Low trust

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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.

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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, he told AFP.

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African governments need to proactively engage vaccine-hesitant citizens, he said, in a sentiment echoed by other public-health experts.

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Some are already doing so: Last week, Ethiopia launched a vaccine information campaign to allay concerns.

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Some national leaders, such as Guinea’s President Alpha Conde, have also broadcast recordings of themselves receiving jabs.

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Ayoade Alakija, the vaccine-confidence campaigner, warned of particular difficulties in tackling misconceptions in countries where trust in government is low.

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“There hasn’t been enough information,” she said.

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