Appropriate cultural and language messaging needed to address the issue of vaccine hesitancy.
HEALTH experts believe the government should be doing more in its messaging to allay fears around Covid-19 vaccines and to promote vaccination.
The National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram) recently found that 71% of South African adults would get vaccinated if a Covid-19 vaccine was available to them.
It found that those most at risk of Covid-19 were more willing than the general population to accept a vaccine, while the youth between the ages of 18 and 25 and those who trust social media as an information source were more likely to be hesitant about getting vaccinated.
Acting deputy vice-chancellor of research and innovation at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and head of the institution’s Covid-19 War Room, Professor Mosa Moshabela, said to label people as hesitant carried the potential consequence of unfairly blaming them for their indecisiveness.
Some people may have genuine concerns that remained inadequately addressed, he said. According to Moshabela, it was important to distinguish between those who were on the fence or remained undecided, as opposed to those who were opposed to vaccines.
He further explained that if South African data was correct and willingness to have a Covid-19 jab was above 70%, then the level of hesitancy was low. But Moshabela said people’s preference might change from time to time, therefore willingness and hesitancy might not be constant as long as people remained unvaccinated.
In such cases, negative events and stories, such as adverse events and breakthrough infections, could drive willing people towards hesitancy, he added.
Moshabela said some people had a genuine fear of needles or of contracting Covid-19 at vaccination sites.
“Government messages have to be tailored to specific barriers to vaccination, such as adverse events, deaths following vaccination, breakthrough infections, etc,” he said.
In addition, the government needed a dedicated team to address these concerns, including through its call centres, mass media and all health workers, he said.
Epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University, Dr Jo Barnes said there was a group of people who were unsure whether they wanted to have the vaccine (vaccine hesitant) as opposed to those who flatly refused and would never change their minds (anti-vaxxers).
Barnes said people were hesitant for several reasons.
“Some simply have a fear of needles or a general fear of medical procedures. Others do not trust the government or first want to see whether the side-effects are small and not a risk to life and limb,” she said.
This occurred all over the world and was particularly frequent in countries where trust in the government was low, she said.
“Some are simply complacent and believe erroneously that their general good health, etc will protect them. Many are influenced by friends or family members who are hesitant themselves,” said Barnes.
Professor Barry Schoub, head of the ministerial advisory committee (MAC) on vaccines, said vaccine hesitancy was present in all strata of society.
With regard to the effectiveness of the government’s vaccination communication with the public, Moshabela said that while he was aware of messages on social media and websites, he was not sure what the messaging strategy was.
“I’d still like to see exactly what the strategy is, but rural areas and less privileged citizens may benefit from more person-to-person dialogical engagement,” said Moshabela.
Schoub said appropriate cultural and language messaging was needed to address the issue of vaccine hesitancy.
Government messaging was reaching the public, but more could be done, he said.
Dr Johannes Belle of the Disaster Management Training and Education Centre at the University of the Free State, said to address vaccine hesitancy there should be massive education and awareness.
“Use local champions and those the local community trusts. Traditional leaders, ward councillors, education institutions, etc, should all be involved in awareness creation,” he said.
Belle said while government’s vaccine messaging might reach the middle class, it was not very impactful. The “reach” and “impact” should be scaled up.
Barnes agreed that roping in church leaders, community leaders and popular sports people, among others, would be effective.