By Charlie B. Chilufya, S.J

A recent study done this year showed that there is greater vaccine hesitancy in high-income countries than in low- and middle-income countries driven mostly by conspiracy theorising.  According to the study reported on 16 July in Nature Medicine, 80% of individuals surveyed in ten low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) in Asia, Africa and South America were willing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 65% in the United States.  In both developing and developed countries anti-vaxxers believe that vaccines are unsafe and infringe on their human rights. They believe that taking the vaccine could worsen their underlying condition. 

But as the study has shown, people in low- and middle-income countries tend to be much more willing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine than are those in developed nations. However, the greatest challenge in most countries in Africa is simply the limited availability of COVID-19 vaccines.  The initial vaccine hesitancy has significantly reduced and more and more people want to get vaccinated. But when those would-be recipients go to clinics to get vaccinated they find them out of stock or where they are available people wait in long lines.

This state of affairs presents compelling evidence that vaccines must be made available to poorer countries immediately. The results of the study are compelling enough for those who care about justice and equity to create a moral appeal to countries that are hoarding vaccines to make them available to the countries that need them instead of throwing them away when they expire on account of limited uptake. This would not only be for the benefit of those poorer countries, but also for global benefit.  Ensuring that all have equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines globally is indeed a moral imperative, but it is also a powerful way to curtail the spread of the coronavirus. 

The lower levels of hesitancy being achieved in Africa make widespread vaccination easier and this must be encouraged. More work to promote vaccine uptake should be done in Africa to bring down vaccine hesitancy even further especially by making the right information available. In the study we have referred to, the analysis showed that nearly half of respondents in low-income countries identified community-health workers as the most trustworthy source to help them decide whether to take the vaccine or not. These community leaders are central to successful vaccination campaigns.

In some countries in Africa, the Jesuit Justice and Ecology Network Africa in collaboration with the Hilton Foundation and FADICA is working with religious sisters in the health and communication ministries to leverage the religious sisters’ situatedness in and closeness to communities to mount serious campaigns to promote vaccine uptake. “This work we are doing is about providing witness to the truth and what is right and it is about care for life and humanity,” said Sr. Regina… the head of the health department of the Association of Sisterhoods in Kenya (AOSK). “So far, we have made great progress in increasing awareness among the religious and ordinary folks,” Sr. Regina added.

The religious sisters are not only providing information but are using various approaches to good communication to communicate effectively for behaviour change. All this is to wade off worries about vaccine side effects and efficacy – which are among the top reasons people would refuse a COVID-19 vaccine – and promote vaccine uptake.