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73% of health workers in Africa remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 – WHO

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THE World Health Organization has raised the alarm that only 27 per cent of health workers in Africa had received COVID-19 vaccination, leaving 73 per cent of the workforce on the frontlines against the pandemic unprotected.

WHO’s Regional Director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti disclosed this at a webinar on Thursday.

She said the analysis of data reported from 25 countries showed that 1.3 million health workers were fully vaccinated since March, with just six countries reaching more than 90 per cent, while nine countries had fully vaccinated less than 40 per cent of the health workforce.

Whereas a recent study of 22 mostly high-income countries by the organisation revealed that over 80 per of their health and care workers were fully vaccinated, the majority of Africa’s health workforce were still missing out on vaccines, Moeti said.

Unvaccinated health workers “remain dangerously exposed to severe COVID-19 infection. Unless our doctors, nurses and other frontline workers get full protection, we risk a blowback in the efforts to curb this disease. We must ensure our health facilities are safe working environments,” the WHO chief said.

She, however, noted that hesitancy by many of the health workers was responsible for their low rate of vaccination against the virus.

“All countries in Africa have prioritized health workers in their vaccination plans. The low coverage is likely due to the availability of vaccination services, especially in rural areas, and vaccine hesitancy. 

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“Recent studies found that only around 40 per cent of health workers intended to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Ghana and less than 50 per cent in Ethiopia. Concerns over vaccine safety and the adverse side effects of the vaccines have been identified as the main reasons for their hesitancy. Health workers are key sources of information for the general population, and their attitudes can influence vaccine uptake.”

She said WHO supported national efforts to drive up health worker vaccination by coordinating training and dialogue on vaccine safety and efficacy to help address doubts or misconceptions around the COVID-19 vaccine and advocate open and honest communication about the benefits side effects of vaccination.

Why vaccination is essential for health workers

Moeti said it was essential to have high vaccine coverage among health workers not only for their protection but also for their patients and to ensure health care systems keep operating during a time of extreme need.

Africa’s shortage of health workers is acute and profound, with only one country in the region having the required health workers (10.9 per 1000 population) to deliver essential health services, she warned. 

According to her, sixteen countries in the region have less than one health worker per 1000 population. She noted that any loss of the workers to COVID-19 due to illness or death heavily impacts service provision capacity.

“Based on data reported to WHO by countries in the African Region, since March 2020, there have been more than 150 400 COVID-19 infections in health workers, accounting for 2.5 per cent of all confirmed cases and 2.6 per cent of the total health workforce in the region. Five countries account for about 70 per cent of all the COVID-19 infections reported in health workers: Algeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe.”

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Moeti explained that more than 227 million vaccine doses had been administered in Africa. In 39 countries which she said provided data, 3.9 million doses had been given to health workers.

Vaccine shipments have been on the rise over the past three months, she said, stressing that Africa has received 330 million doses from the COVAX Facility, the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team and bilateral agreements since February 2021. 

“Of these, 83 per cent have been delivered since August alone. As vaccine supply picks up, addressing uptake bottlenecks and accelerating rollout become more critical.”

After plateauing, COVID-19 infections are rising again

After almost four months of a sustained decline, COVID-19 cases in Africa have plateaued.

Moeti said for the first time since the third wave peaked in August, cases in Southern Africa had increased, jumping 48 per cent in the week ending on 21 November compared with the previous week.

She said the risk of health worker infection would rise whenever cases surged.

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She said the pattern was observed during the previous three waves of the pandemic, adding that with a fourth wave likely to hit after the end-of-year travel season, health workers would again face risks amid low vaccination coverage.

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