By Ann GODWIN
CHINDA Okpara lives in Rumuekini, in Obio Akpor Local Council, one of the largest councils in Rivers State. He has not taken the AstraZeneca-made Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine, which is available in the country. Okpara is yet to have the jab because he does not believe in it, nor does he believe that the lethal virus is present on the African continent.
“I cannot take the vaccine even if I am dying. In fact, even if they say that I have COVID-19, and it is killing me, I cannot take the vaccine because there is no COVID-19 in Nigeria,” he recently stressed.
For local and international health authorities, vaccine makers and sundry interventionists struggling to mitigate the spread or bring an end to the pandemic, this is not cheery news, especially when considering efforts to make the vaccine in particular and making the world safe for everyone in general.
Creating a vaccine under one year is no small feat. Several studies have shown that it takes about 10 to 15 years to develop a vaccine.
Indeed, a study by Medical News Today shows that before now, the fastest vaccine to be created remains the mumps vaccine, which took four years to develop.
Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic spurred global cooperation for vaccine research and distribution. Notwithstanding, many Nigerians are worried about the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, which took just one year to be brought into being.
Also caught in the web of vaccine hesitancy is 69-year-old farmer Samuel Wokoma, a native of Ikwere Local Council, who is equally unsure of the vaccine’s efficacy. Indeed, this poor perception is responsible for the low acceptance of COVID-19 vaccines in Rivers State.
Even though the state government is intensifying awareness and strategies to sensitise citizens on the imperatives of accepting the vaccine now that it is available, not much has been achieved in that regard.
Nigeria, the second worst-hit African country by COVID-19 after South Africa, is faced with a weak public health system, coupled with incessant doctors’ strike, and the country can barely meet the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation of 60 per cent to 70 per cent COVID-19 vaccine coverage to control, and end the pandemic.
Findings show that the AstraZeneca, the only COVID- 19 vaccine in Nigeria, was received on March 2, 2021. A total of 3.92 million doses of the vaccine were shipped via the COVAX facility, a partnership between CEPI, Gavi, UNICEF and the WHO.
Of the 16 million doses planned to be delivered to the country in batches from Covax, checks revealed that the country has also received 300 000 doses of AstraZeneca from telecommunication company – MTN, and another 100, 000 doses from the Indian government.
According to data from the WHO, Lagos State, where the pandemic broke out, which has the highest number of cases on March 12, 2021, received 507 000 doses from the Federal Government.
Rivers State has also received 150 240 doses. Out of the number, statistics show that 78 000 persons have had their first jabs, while only 27 000 persons have had their second jabs as of June 24.
One of those that have taken their first dose of the vaccine is Port Harcourt-based female journalist Anita Ugonna, who incidentally has vowed not to take the second dose.
She told The Guardian that she took the vaccine because she believed it was supposed to prevent the virus, but her experience after obtaining the jab was devastating.
She said: “Earlier, we were told that we would experience minor fever, but I had swollen hands for more than three weeks after taking the jab,” she said.
“My arm was so big that I couldn’t lift it easily, and I had to be assisted for more than three weeks. I operated as a one-armed person for that long. That is the reason that I am not going for the second dose no matter the consequences,” Ugonna added.
Ugonna, who said that no explanation was given to her when she returned to the hospital to examine the arm, stressed: “they couldn’t help me; they couldn’t assist me, so I don’t want to bring more problems unto myself. That’s why I decided not to retake the vaccine.”
A report in the International Journal of Tropical Disease and Health, published on April 24, 2021, attributed the reluctance of many to take the jab to the fear of its side effects, as well as claims by many that the disease is even non-existent.
For Mrs. Gloria Uche, a seamstress, and Blessing Gift, a vendor who resides in Rumuekini, Obio/Akpor Local Council, COVID-19 is not real; hence there is no need to bother about taking any vaccine.
The two women believe that if COVID-19 were real, many people would have died in different communities across the state and country.
“During the outbreak of the pandemic, and despite the ban on public places, crowds were still gathering both in markets and churches, but nothing happened to us. So, we don’t believe in it. That is why we said that we would not take the vaccine,” they insisted.
Food More Important Than Vaccines
DESPITE the debilitating consequences of the pandemic, many, especially the dregs of society, still think that a vaccine is less important than food in the perking order.
This group of struggling Nigerians has an ally in a cleric, Pastor Robinson Derateide, advising the Federal Government to prioritise food above medicine. He believes that more Nigerians are dying of hunger and insecurity than from Coronavirus.
“The Federal Government is not concerned that Nigerians are dying of hunger and insecurity. Go to the markets, and you would see that many Nigerians cannot afford food. Should that not be a major concern to the government? On a personal note, I am convinced that there is COVID-19, so when it is convenient for me, I will take the vaccine,” he stated.
Mamodu Geory, a movie actor, agrees with Derateide that affordable food appears to be competing for attention with vaccines, hence the government’s need to make life worth living for residents of the state, especially the poor and the vulnerable ones.
Besides the soaring cost of food items, the plethora of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, some shaped by religious beliefs and culture, has equally complicated the state government’s effort in vaccinating the people.
Even in the United States, a survey conducted by Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) between February 11 and March 7, 2021, shows that less than half of black frontline healthcare workers (39 per cent) and Hispanic frontline healthcare workers (44 per cent) received the COVID-19 vaccine compared to six in 10 (57%) white health workers, mirroring the disparities found in vaccine uptake rates among the national adult population.
On the other hand, the KFF COVID-19 vaccine monitor found a steady increase in the share of black adults and Hispanic adults who report being vaccinated for COVID-19 or who say that they would get the vaccine as soon as it is available to them.
These populations remain more likely than white adults, who say that they are waiting to see how the vaccine works for other people before getting vaccinated themselves.
Misconception, Myths, Mistrust Over Vaccine Uptake
SINCE its outbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed enormous challenges to Nigeria and its citizens, disrupting the nation’s economy. But several factors have sustained the misconception and mistrust surrounding the vaccine.
At the State Primary Model Healthcare Centre in Okija, Mile One Diobu, in Port Harcourt City Local Council, at least 20 persons still find it expedient to stop by and get a jab daily.
But at the Rivers State University Teaching Hospital, and the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital, things are a bit better as over 50 persons get vaccinated in the two facilities “on a good day.” On the other days, the number is lower.
Even though several healthcare workers that have been vaccinated maintain that their acceptance or rejection of the vaccine could influence the general population’s uptake, a large number of residents remain unpersuaded.
That notwithstanding, Dr. Doris Nria, a health educator who has taken the jab, advised those that are still sitting on the fence to take the vaccine, and it is “very safe and important for all.
“The vaccine is very effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19 infection, and it will help to boost our immunity and stop us from being susceptible to infections like the current strain of COVID-19. So, I encourage everyone to go and take the jab.”
The Director, Primary Healthcare Management Board, Dr. Joy Wihioka, equally stressed the efficacy and safety of the vaccine, urging residents to waste no time in getting theirs.
“I have taken the jab, and it is safe. The fact that I have taken it is enough proof that it is safe. So, members of the public should not have any doubts about the vaccine,” said the medical expert.
Also, the Coordinator, National Primary Healthcare Development Agency, Rivers State, Dr. Emma Ukpong, who took his first jab on March 24, 2021, said nothing untoward has happened to her since doing so two months ago.
She, therefore, urged Nigerians to avail themselves of the opportunity as the vaccines are safe.
While many are being conscientised to get the jab, Mrs. Ilanye Chapp-Jumbo, a civil servant in the state, told The Guardian that she was compelled to take the vaccine because it was compulsory to provide evidence of vaccination ahead of her trip abroad.
“I was supposed to travel, so it was mandatory for me to take the jab. Sincerely, I was indifferent. The test was very uncomfortable, but after taking my first and second jabs, I had no noticeable reactions; I felt normal, but also felt slightly cold.”
COVID-19 Vaccine Safe, Efficacious – Experts
FOR a former World Health Organisation (WHO) regional virologist, Prof. Oyewale Tomori, while the COVID-19 vaccines have proven safe, the full duration of acquired immunity is still under study.
Tomori, who spoke on the efficacy of vaccines recently, said even though some are largely uninformed about the vaccine hence the hesitancy that they display, he noted that people should take it to curb the spread of the disease.
The virologist, who recalled that vaccine boycott during the polio days caused serious a setback in the society, added that the COVID-19 virus is likely to remain with the people for a very long time and that since most Nigerians are not complying with non-pharmaceutical interventions like wearing of face masks, avoiding large gatherings, regular washing of hands and maintaining physical distance, the safest bet is to get vaccinated.
“As a nation, we need to unite and act with one objective – to control the spread of the virus effectively. We need to learn from the past and improve our preparedness and response for existing and recurring plagues. New epidemics of unknown diseases will emerge in the future, and Nigeria must be prepared to do better than she has done with the COVID-19 vaccine,” he said.
According to a consultant public health physician and Head of Community Healthcare Department, University of Port Harcourt, Dr. Omosivie Maduka, vaccines and vaccination are the most cost-effective public health method of preventing and controlling diseases.
She said: “Yes, it is true that the COVID-19 vaccine was developed under a year, and most of the vaccines that we are using now cannot be compared to the other vaccines that took five, 10, 15 or even 20 years to get it right and develop.”
The medical expert assured Nigerians that there were no shortcuts in producing the COVID-19 vaccine, saying, “what happened was that a lot of scientific breakthroughs have happened before the COVID-19 era. So, those scientific breakthroughs allowed us to do things faster than the traditional method of doing things.
“The scientists did not also give themselves rest. They worked round the clock. So, that’s why the vaccine was faster, not that its safety is compromised.”
She, however, urged Nigerians to stop accepting all information circulating on social media, warning that most of these materials are fake.
“I have taken my two doses, and I am very ok. So, none of those speculations is true. There is bound to be some form of scepticism when it comes to the issue of the safety of a new vaccine.
“It is important to fact-check. In some countries where these vaccines have been introduced, the number of persons affected by the virus has dropped significantly. It is in our best interest. It is safe.”
State Governments Ramp Up Efforts To Ensure More People Vaccinated
AMONG other things, the Rivers State government has put in place strategies to get more people in the state to get vaccinated. This includes regular engagements with healthcare workers, media practitioners, and various other stakeholders. Along this line, radio and television jingles, newspaper adverts, and a local mode of information are activated to disseminate COVID-19 messages to the public further.
Already, the state has established a COVID-19 Task Force Committee, headed by the state Commissioner for Information, Paulinus Nsirim, and the Permanent Secretary, Primary Healthcare Management Board, Agba Aggreye Harry.
Recently, the taskforce met with various stakeholders and set up a WhatsApp platform, where information and updates about the vaccines are being circulated.
Checks by The Guardian revealed that most hospitals and primary healthcare centres are designated locations for the administration of jabs.
Harry, who has also received the vaccine, explained that nobody in Rivers State who has taken the jab had noticed any rare adverse effects, pointing out that he personally had no reactions after taking it.
“We have kicked off a lot of jingles, and a lot of works are going on in the field. So, I urge everyone to endeavour to get the first dose and, immediately after six weeks, make his/herself available for the second dose. Sooner or later, it will be part of the requirements for travel. So, it is necessary for all.”
Also speaking, Nsirim said sensitisation remains key to efforts to curb the spread of the disease, adding that if the majority of the people take the vaccine, there would be a healthy society.
“The media’s involvement is vital to deal with the issues of myths and misconception about the vaccine, which we really need to deal with so that people don’t just take what they read in the social media seriously.”
Nsirim, who has also been vaccinated, declared that the vaccine is safe and urged citizens to discountenance the rumour that those who took it will die in two years and come out to take it.
Preserving Environment To Preserve Our Health
A renowned environmentalist, Nnimo Bassey, believes that diseases need to be treated with the best possible method but warned that if the world continues on environmental destructions, it will be hard to deal with more pandemics, which may erupt in the future.
“Are we going to wait for vaccines for every pandemic, or are we going to stop the pandemic from coming? He queried. “There are two possible origins of the virus; both should be taken very seriously,” Bassey adds.
“The first is, the virus is a zoonotic disease meaning it came from an animal and crossed to human and this could happen because of consumption, and closeness to humans. It can also happen because of habitat loss, destruction, deforestation, urbanisation, and other ways that habitats can be lost.
“When we destroy the environment, we are destroying the habitats of many organisms, and they have to survive somewhere and sometimes. They don’t survive, but they could pass diseases like this. One thing everybody has to be concerned with is that all forms of environmental degradation have to be halted or tackled immediately, and this requires a change of behaviour, by protecting the environment.”
Bassey also noted that the disease could have escaped from the laboratory during experiments with dangerous viruses and called for a stop in experimenting with dangerous viruses.
He tasked the government to get the health system totally overhauled, medical workers duly compensated, health facilities rehabilitated, and the healthcare environment protected.
This report was facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its Free to Share Project.