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Vaccine information deficit worries the public

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THE Zimbabwean government should prioritise investing in a robust information campaign on the Sinopharm vaccine to boost public confidence ahead of a mass rollout campaign.

NYASHA CHINGONO
While it is encouraging that Zimbabwe finally has a vaccination programme underway, a clear communication plan, spelling out what the process entails as well as the potential side effects of the Chinese vaccine, would be useful.

A major confidence booster was Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga receiving the jab on Thursday.
Zimbabwe on Monday took delivery of 200 000 Sinopharm doses from China, a boost for a government whose vaccination programme had remained in limbo until its “all-weather friend” made a donation.

According to the ministry of Health, Zimbabwe will take delivery of a further 600 000 doses of the same vaccine soon.

Confidence remains low among the frontline health workers, although Chiwenga’s decision to take the vaccine would have gone some way to allaying the fears.

Speaking to The NewsHawks this week, nurses and doctors say the lack of information remained worrisome.

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) said the government should do more to allay fears among the healthcare workers, who are a critical component of the vaccine rollout programme.

“Government has to do more to allay the fears of the public and it begins with the frontline staff,” ZADHR president Norman Matara said.

Nurses are also sceptical about taking the jab since the government has not communicated the likely side effects, especially for those with underlying health issues.

The side effects of taking the Sinopharm vaccine remain a mystery, while other vaccines like AstraZeneca and Pfizer have user manuals, although there are still lots of questions globally on each and every vaccine on the market.

The government has not instilled a sense of confidence, the nurses say.

These sentiments from frontline workers come after the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) sued the government over the failure to release critical information on Covid-19 vaccines.

ZimRights gave the government a seven-day ultimatum to release this critical information, but the authorities remain unfazed.

ZimRights contends that due to the rising Covid-19 cases and fatalities, the government must treat the issue of vaccines as a matter of urgency.

“This application is one to compel the respondents to publicise a Covid-19 vaccine rollout plan and strategy,” reads the application.

With confidence waning among the frontline workers, the government must invest in a mass campaign to educate the public on the vaccine.

This is on the backdrop of government mistrusts which run deep in the Zimbabwean society.

Health expert Solwayo Ngwenya said the vaccination campaign could fail without a clear communication strategy, adding that the public should not rely on rumours.

“Information sharing is extremely vital, otherwise the programme will fail. People should not rely on rumours,” Ngwenya said.

The government’s rush to rollout the vaccine among frontline staff without conducting clinical trials has also heightened public mistrust.

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) this week moved to seek an interdict to stop the government from commencing the vaccination programme.

The lawyers argue the government has not followed quality control stages, warning that going ahead with the rollout programme would endanger Zimbabweans.

Despite growing doubts on the efficacy of the Sinopharm vaccine, which is also yet to be approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the government went ahead with the programme, with Chiwenga receiving the first dose at Wilkins Infectious Diseases Hospital in Harare.

While it is commendable when leaders lead from the front during times of unprecedented turmoil, it still does not compensate for the information deficit currently spooking the public.

Unlike South Africa which stopped the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout following a new study that showed that it was weak in dealing with the new variant, Zimbabwe will go ahead with the rollout without due diligence.

South Africa has since returned a million jabs to India after trials involving 2 000 people found that the vaccine offered minimal protection against mild and moderate cases.

With the South African variant now dominant in Zimbabwe, according to latest statistics, there are fears that the Sinopharm vaccine’s efficacy would be tested.

Itai Rusike, executive director of the Community Working Group on Health (CWGH), said government’s communication on the vaccines should be customised to promote trust among the public.

“We expected the government  right from the beginning to put communities at the heart of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout programme in order to promote trust, support and buy in from the general public as an informed, engaged and empowered communities are the bedrock for vaccine acceptance,” Rusike said.

“Unfortunately there has been generally lack of transparency about the plans and decisions by the government in securing doses of the Covid-19 vaccines from China given that there are other vaccines with an even better efficacy,” he added.

Rusike underscored the importance of involving communities in the vaccination campaign.

Rusike said the lack of information and awareness campaigns on Covid-19 vaccines had resulted in misinformation, disinformation, science denialism, anti-vaxxer sentiments and vaccine hesitancy.

“Tackling this disinformation and misinformation will require multilingual public education campaigns and active community participation and engagement. The government and other stakeholders in the health sector should work with the communities to ensure voluntary acceptance of the Covid-19 vaccines, including countering anti-vaccine stories and beliefs,” he said.

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