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Vaccines are largely known to be safe and effective in protecting people against deadly and disabling infectious diseases. Currently, there are vaccines that are effective against over 20 diseases. Overall, it is estimated that vaccines save the lives of up to 3 million people annually.
However, over time, vaccination programs have faced several challenges prominent of which is the increasing vaccine hesitancy among the public. Hesitancy has particularly affected the newly introduced COVID-19 vaccines including the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
In the West Nile sub-region of Uganda, the response especially among frontline health workers was not any different. Initially, the acceptance or willingness to take the COVID-19 vaccine was notably low with only a few accepting to be vaccinated.
For instance, in Arua City, less than 10% of the frontline health workers were vaccinated in the first two days and only 26% of the registered health workers agreed to be vaccinated according to the district records.
“The first few days of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign were marked by a rather poor turn-up for vaccination due to a number of reasons ranging from administrative challenges. Key among these was hesitancy from the front-line health workers who were our first target,” says Dr Apangu Pontius, Acting District Health Officer of Arua City. “We only managed to tackle this issue and improve turn up by embarking on effective vaccine safety communication targeting the priority group,” he adds.
Yet, health experts continued to be concerned about the difficulty of ending the COVID-19 pandemic without vaccinating enough people to attain herd immunity which is crucial because it will lead to de-congestion of Intensive Care Units, continued delivery of essential health services and restoration of normal social and economic activities.
While several people understand the benefits of vaccination and have responded positively, a significant proportion continues to have concerns about the safety of vaccines.
WHO risk communication teams in the region have responded to these concerns by designing and implementing orientation sessions for the target groups. They are providing accurate and scientifically proven information on the vaccine and tackling rumours and misinformation. This has contributed to increased vaccine uptake among frontline health workers, teachers, and security personnel.
“If it wasn’t for the COVID-19 vaccination continuous medical education organized at the facility by the WHO and the district health team, I wouldn’t have accepted this Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. It has received a lot of negative publicity through social media and in the news about leading to blood clots in a few people,” says Sister Hellen Lumago, the In-charge, Lodonga Health Center IV.
Despite, the achievements to date, a multitude of gaps and challenges still exist in the population especially regarding vaccine safety. This is inevitable and expected especially when introducing a new vaccine.
An effective risk communication strategy can go a long way in allaying concerns, addressing rumours and misinformation and in the process contributing to wider coverage and containment of the outbreak. Health workers in West Nile sub-region are doing exactly that.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of WHO Regional Office for Africa.