Africa must counter COVID vaccine misinformation, scientist warns

By Verenardo Meeme

December 21, 2020

Immunization experts in Africa have decried the lack of a deliberate effort to counter misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.

‘‘As far as I know now in Africa, there is no organized ground plan to counter misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines,” said Prof. Phelix Majiwa, a pioneering molecular biologist and professor on the faculty of veterinary science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.

He cited the Africa Science Media Center, where he made his comments during a media briefing, as the first attempt to share information in an organized way of responding to this misinformation.

“It is unfortunate that misinformation is partly coming from church leaders,” he said. “They oppose the use of vaccines with a lot of misinformation. Information based on vaccines must be balanced with the language that is understandable.”

Given that misinformation is widespread, Africans should make sure these narratives do not become entrenched, as they could be disastrous in many respects, he advised.

“The consequences are that misinformation somehow shapes public perception against the vaccines, resulting in some people being reluctant or opting not to take vaccinations,” he explained.

“Everyone concerned about the welfare of Africans should be involved in fighting anti-vaccines,” he added, noting that the vaccine development process is compounded by other challenges.  “With misinformation, anti-vaccine groups could make vaccination against COVID-19 much more difficult than already is.’’

Pieces of misinformation abound but can be grouped into various categories, according to Majiwa. Some are directed toward vaccines in general or any disease whatsoever. Others are addressed to specific companies that manufacture vaccines or various individuals who may not have a financial interest in vaccine development or even any remote connection to vaccines.

The health and economic implications of the virus should actually encourage anti-vaccination groups to acknowledge the role of science in contributing to the wellbeing of society, he said. “Scientists have worked very hard based on prior knowledge and have used various knowledge and safe tools to find vaccine candidates.”

Pushing back against misinformation

He advised journalists, faith leaders, local community leaders, professionals and science communicators in Africa to explain to their readers and followers the need for vaccination as a means of disease control. This will increase the likelihood of vaccine uptake on the targeted population.

Anti-vaccine campaigners are claiming that 90 percent of the people in poorer countries will not opt to get the COVID vaccine in 2021. Existing campaigns, such as those supporting immunization against polio and measles, are already facing opposition from some religious leaders, which is hindering the vaccine uptake process in Africa.  Most anti-vaxxers base their opposition on religious arguments and misinformation, not necessarily on science or professional advice.

Experts say two issues haunt Africa:  Acceptance by the population, given the ongoing campaigns against vaccines; and accessibility to and sustainability of vaccines for general use.

“Messages against vaccines are posted in social media although some of them go to mainstream media, either in small or big circulation, but they are very aggressive. Some are veiled, others mixed with half information,” Majiwa said. “People pay attention to them. If not, they would not have been posted by media consistently.”

Misinformation must not take root in Africa, he warned, as it could make vaccination campaigns more difficult and the safety of the rest of the world could be compromised because of risks posed by travel and economic activities.

“I am calling on communicators and journalists to verify information and to push back against misinformation by providing reliable information on vaccines as both vaccines and information about them has become available,” he said.

Trusted experts should form part of the messaging effort as African countries need up to 70 percent of their citizens to accept vaccines in order for them to work.

“If you have less, you may not be able to control the virus,” Majiwa said. The 70 percent compliance rate must be confined within a country’s boundary as the likelihood of interactions at various boarders will make stopping the spread of the virus much more difficult.

The first versions of the vaccines that require cold storage at temperatures of minus-70C are not going to be available in a number of developing countries that do not have the infrastructure, he said. Meanwhile, an Africa-based consortium has formed to buy vaccines, with some African countries are already contributing to the effort.

Kenya’s Ministry of Health said vaccination has been one of the most successful and cost-effective public health interventions in history, as evidenced by the eradication of smallpox, a significant reduction in the prevalence of poliomyelitis and the dramatic reduction in morbidity and mortality from several other illnesses.