Fighting vaccine hesitancy

Rates of vaccination against Covid-19 are still disappointingly low in Africa, with just around 8 percent of the continent’s population fully vaccinated against the disease. And this average masks large differences between countries. Mauritius and Morocco, for example, already fully vaccinated 72 and 62 percent of their populations respectively, but in countries like Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, vaccination rates remain well under one percent.

Since the emergence of the more transmissible Omicron variant, the number of Covid-19 infections is on the rise, but the number of deaths still remain relatively low on the continent. Nevertheless, given the known weaknesses of African health sectors, including the limited number of intensive care beds, there are fears that if the Omicron variant continues its rapid spread – or worse, a more transmissible and deadly variant emerges – Africa could find itself in the middle of an unprecedented public health crisis. Thus, front-loading vaccination appears to be the only available option to prevent a new disaster on the continent.

Unfortunately, due to several interconnected factors, Africa is not expected to reach the global target of 70 percent vaccination set for mid-2022 until the end of 2024, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Beyond its consequences for the population of the continent, that miss will likely have large and negative spillover effects on the rest of the world in terms of the emergence of new, potentially more harmful variants.

The main reason behind low vaccination rates in Africa has been the low supply. Indeed, high-income countries have been hoarding vaccines, most recently for third ‘booster’ doses, leaving low-income countries, including many in Africa, unable to access enough doses even for their most vulnerable populations and frontline health workers.

The limited shelf life of vaccines – three to six months on average – also had an effect on vaccination rates in Africa, as it made it highly difficult for vaccine-abundant nations to transfer their excess doses to vaccine-poor nations before they expire.

But vaccine manufacturers around the world are ramping up production, and demand for vaccines is slowly but steadily declining in high-income countries. According to The International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, at least 1.5 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccine are currently being produced every month, and the total number of vaccine doses produced is expected to reach 24 billion by June 2022. By that time vaccine supplies will likely outstrip global demand. What all this means is that the supply shortage in Africa will likely come to an end in the near future. This is undoubtedly good news for the continent. But now, African states need to focus their efforts on overcoming local bottlenecks, such as poor logistics, lack of capacity to administer doses and vaccine hesitancy, which could hinder future vaccination drives.

Failure to address these bottlenecks swiftly and efficiently could result in more and more vaccine doses being returned to manufacturers or destroyed, especially considering the short shelf life of most doses. The continent has endemic logistical problems. Many of Africa’s leading ports, for example, are suffering from high levels of corruption which is already causing significant delays in and adding costs to imports. These problems could also derail the continent’s Covid-19 vaccination drives.

Excerpted: ‘It is time for Africa to focus on getting vaccines in arms’.


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