South Africa needs a massive awareness campaign to overcome Covid vaccine hesitancy

By Mark Tomlinson and Ashraf Kagee

Original article published in Daily Maverick


In the face of vaccine hesitancy, trust is a key component. South African public figures have an important role to play as role models and examples to others that receiving the Covid-19 vaccine is imperative for their own health as well as the health and wellbeing of our society.


The first week of February 2021 was a momentous one in the Covid-19 pandemic. It was the week when the number of people globally who had received a vaccine overtook the numbers of people who have contracted the virus thus far. Bahrain currently has the second-highest vaccination rate in the world, while by Saturday, 6 February, the US was vaccinating over a million people a day.


As our health system gears up to embark on a mass vaccination programme in the coming months, it is necessary for the uptake of a vaccine to be as high as possible. A recent survey conducted by researchers at the University of Johannesburg and the Human Sciences Research Council has shown that two-thirds of South African adults would definitely or probably accept a vaccine if one were available, 15% stated they did not know, and 18% said they would not accept a vaccine.


We need a huge national effort to convince members of the public who are eligible to receive a vaccine to accept one. A high level of immunity provided by wide vaccine coverage is the best chance we have to reduce the number of new infections; to reduce symptoms, hospitalisation, and deaths among those infected; and thus to ensure that health services can be freed up to serve people with other health conditions. We need to ensure high enough uptake of the vaccine to provide herd immunity to South African society.


There is, unfortunately, a sense among some in the public that vaccines may cause more harm than good and that vaccines will actually infect people with the Covid-19 virus. This kind of misinformation must be countered from a range of sources – government, the medical establishment and the media.

Vaccine hesitancy or vaccine refusal has a long history – inevitably tied to charlatans such as Andrew Wakefield, who did serious damage to public understanding of the effectiveness of the MMR vaccine. Wakefield’s now-discredited study, suggesting that the MMR vaccine was associated with autism in children, was withdrawn from The Lancet because his data were simply false.


We need to guard against baseless claims about any of the available Covid-19 vaccines that are not supported by science. The credibility bestowed on pseudoscience and quackery unfortunately also has a long history in South Africa. Former president Thabo Mbeki argued that HIV does not cause Aids, entertained the quackery of vitamin salesman Matthias Rath, who peddled vitamins to cure HIV, and appointed a minister of health (Manto Tshabalala-Msimang) who believed that beetroot, olive oil and garlic could cure Aids.


Some people are genuinely worried and concerned that a vaccine may harm them. To allay such fears we need accurate information, clear messaging, and excellent science. Lies and misinformation can only be countered by facts, data and solid evidence. Baseless claims and conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccine should be met by these means.


Read the full OP-ED on the Daily Maverick here.