Vaccine Equity Within Africa Key for Continent’s Recovery

PUBLISHED: Fri, 07 Jan 2022 14:33:39 GMT
Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi
A heatlh worker preparing to extract a dose of vaccine from a vial.

Today, fewer than one in every 10 adult people in Africa have been fully vaccinated, compared to the global average of nearly five in every 10 adults. We know that the stark differences in vaccine distribution between high-income and low- and middle-income countries are the main reasons for this. However, one of the most overlooked factors adding to the problem is the major inequities in vaccine distribution between and within African countries.

Comparing vaccination rates among African countries tells a surprising story. For example, Morocco and Tunisia, two of the most vaccinated countries on the continent, have fully vaccinated about half of their entire adult populations. In contrast, some of the least vaccinated countries like DRC, South Sudan and Chad have only fully vaccinated about one percent of their adult populations.

Currently, only five out of Africa’s 54 countries are on track to meet the target to vaccinate 40 percent of their populations by the end of 2021, according to the WHO. There are also major inequities in vaccination rates within specific countries. In Kenya, 25 percent of the capital Nairobi’s adult population is fully vaccinated, compared to less than two percent of adult people in the country’s least vaccinated regions. A third of Kenya’s 2.5 million fully vaccinated adults are also in the capital city.

Several factors are slowing down equitable vaccine distribution and uptake within Africa. First, the slow and unpredictable global supply has derailed well-laid out vaccination plans. National and facility level vaccine stock outs have affected rollout plans and uptake.

Second, most African countries are still working around the logistical barriers of distributing vaccines to remote areas, limiting their reach. Third, there is a shortage of syringes which are crucial to administering vaccines. UNICEF estimates the continent’s shortfall at 2.2 billion syringes. Lastly, vaccine hesitancy, which has intensified for COVID-19 vaccines, has rendered some countries less willing to get vaccinated than others.

The inequity in vaccine distribution among African countries, combined with the limited vaccine supply to the continent, means Africa is at risk of remaining behind in the global recovery. The situation is also undermining the global recovery. As most people on the continent remain unvaccinated, new coronavirus variants can easily emerge and trigger new waves globally. The emergence and spread of the Omicron variant is a case in point.

Africa must urgently work to break down barriers to vaccine inequity within its borders and vaccinate more people.

On the domestic front, African countries must address bottlenecks to vaccine distribution. This means working to strengthen their national COVID-19 rollout campaigns to address operational and logistical gaps and take deliberate steps to ensure that anyone who wants a vaccine can get it wherever and whenever they want it.

Africa must also double down on reducing the misinformation fuelling vaccine hesitancy. This means assessing where and why current campaigns have failed and emphasizing re-designing new strategies.

Lastly, Africa must develop the capability to manufacture its own vaccines. Scientists, healthcare workers, biotechnology companies, the private sector, investors and others must work under the guidance of the African Union’s Partnership for African Vaccine Manufacturing (PAVM) framework to manufacture 60 percent of all vaccines needed by 2040.

Only by getting vaccines to all that need them in Africa can the continent recover stronger.

Dr. Catherine Kyobutungi is an epidemiologist and the Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Centre

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