Covid-19: Misinformation steams vaccine hesitancy


Madam Afia (not her real name), 58, a headteacher at a primary school in Matuga Constituency, Kwale County going through a teacher attendance sheet in her office on June 13, 2021. [Sigomba Ramadhan]

Madam Afia (not her real name), 58, a head-teacher at one of the primary schools in Matuga Constituency, Kwale County, says that she is willing to quit her job instead of being vaccinated.

“I have two years left before retirement. If the government makes it mandatory for teachers to be vaccinated, then I will kiss my job goodbye right away.”

The mother of five is adamant against vaccination, saying that the Kenyan government has not offered convincing clarity on the propagated side effects of the Covid-19 vaccines.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about vaccines. As for me, I am sceptical because the government has not offered enough clarity about the side effects of vaccines to convince me to get a jab.”

Online misinformation and the facts

Her unwavering stance is based on several WhatsApp messages she came across in one of her groups. The messages falsely claim adverse and fatal side effects of Covid-19 vaccines.

“I came across screenshots being shared on WhatsApp claiming that one’s hand might swell after vaccination and die after the second shot,” she said.

Madam Afia also mentions receiving a text on the messaging App claiming the AstraZeneca vaccine causes a horrific skin disorder and, eventually, death.

The head-teacher says that she does not spread the unverified reports about Covid-19 vaccination. However, the messages have contributed to her reluctance to immunisation.

“I have not shared the posts I see on the teachers’ forum, but I must admit they have had an impact on my reluctance towards being vaccinated.”

A screengrab of a WhatsApp Message circulating claiming all vaccinated people will die in two years. [Courtesy]

This widely circulated text message that Madam Afia came across, with information incorrectly attributed to French virologist Luc Montagnier, claims that all the vaccinated people will “die within two years” and have no chance of survival.

The message further adds that those vaccinated will die from antibody-dependent enhancement, which occurs when the antibodies generated during an immune response recognise and bind to a pathogen. Still, they are unable to prevent infection, becoming beneficial to the virus.

However, after exhaustive research, we identified the claims made by Luc are false and have no backing by data or science. Moreover, allegations ascribed to him that vaccinated people will die in two years have been quoted out of context. In the 11-minute long interview, Luc says that people worldwide will know the effects of the vaccines after two to three years.

One of the side effects mentioned by Madam Afia is similar to a tweet traced to a user identified as @Shaniehunie.

The user claimed that her father developed a skin disorder on the left side of her body after receiving his first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

We contacted the user for more details, but she turned her Twitter account to private, making us unable to see her timeline.

However, with the help of Trendsmap, a Twitter trend tracking service, we were able to find the tweet which was captioned: “My father got the second dose of AstraZeneca and these are the side effects. His entire left side looks like this (side that was injected). It is symptoms with the first dose.”

Screengrabs of the tweet caption and images uploaded by @Shaniehunie. [Courtesy]

The man captured in the images appears to have what a Mswambweni Hospital-based doctor, Nayla Mwandaro, describes as a bacterial skin infection. The top skin layer sloughs, causing skin loss in extensive areas.

However, Dr Mwandaro said the condition is most likely not due to the AstraZeneca vaccine.

What does the research say?

A background paper by Oxford University and AstraZeneca posted on the World Health Organisation website outlined the following adverse effects reported by people who were vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine;

Approximately 6 out of 10 people reported site tenderness, while around half of those vaccinated reported site pain, headache, and fatigue.

That aside, around 40 per cent of those vaccinated experienced muscle pain, illness, and discomfort.

The lowest reported effects were fever, chills, and nausea.

“The majority of the adverse reactions were mild to moderate in severity and usually resolved within few days of vaccination,” read the report.

Madam Afia says that alarming unverified messages have been repeatedly shared on the online teachers’ forum, making teachers leery about the foreign research on Covid-19 vaccines.

Low vaccination acceptance rates

“In my school, no teacher has been vaccinated. The only person I know to have received a Covid-19 vaccine is our chairperson of the Board of Management.” Madam Afia says.

Her sentiments were corroborated by a Public Health Officer who asked to be kept anonymous.

The PHO said that among the frontline professions prioritised to receive a Covid-19 vaccine jab, teachers in Kwale County are the lowest in numbers to turn up for vaccination. 

Data from Kenya’s Ministry of Health shows Kwale County among the bottom ten regarding Covid-19 vaccinations and contributing to only 0.4 per cent of the total vaccines given.

According to Madam Afia, there are fears about vaccination in Matuga Constituency, which were recently evidenced when pupils at a nearby Kiteje Primary School scampered after the Ministry of Health vehicles parked in the school compound.

“The students thought they were being vaccinated. They ran away. Some of their alarmed parents went (to the school) and inquired about what had just happened.”

Madam Afia says her concerns about the Covid-19 vaccines have been extended to the rest of her family members. She says that her 62-year-old husband shares the same belief as hers.

As the dreadful Covid-19 hits hard on people with underlying conditions, Madam Afia, who has high blood pressure, is not bothered by staying unvaccinated.

She says that if she dies of the virus, then it would be 'qadar' (an Islamic concept that God knows everything and has already decided everything that will happen).

“I am not concerned that the virus would kill me if I am not vaccinated. I believe the age I have reached is more than enough for me. And my kids are old enough to fend for themselves.”

She adds, together with her husband, they have explicitly advised their children against Covid-19 vaccination.

“My husband and five children have not been vaccinated. And they will not be vaccinated under my watch.”

What do the experts say?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) ranks vaccine hesitancy among the top 10 threats to global health, stating that vaccination prevents about 2-3 million deaths per year.

Recently honoured by President Uhuru Kenyatta for her efforts in the fight against Covid-19, infectious disease specialist Dr Marybeth Maritim says there is a need to do more public education on vaccines through mass media.

“Some of the reasons for vaccine hesitancy are the lack of reliable information on Covid-19 vaccines in the public domains, people relying on social media for vaccine information instead of reliable bodies such as WHO and religiously affiliated organisations spreading conspiracy theories. Sadly, we also have some healthcare workers who are hesitant to accept the vaccines therefore not passing the correct message to the people under their care,” she opines.

Safety not reassured

As Kenya grapples with the coronavirus, fewer doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are being administered.

Kenya halted the administration of the first dose of the vaccine and, at the moment, prioritises those receiving the second dose.

With new variants emerging in the country and fewer vaccine doses being administered, Dr Maritim believes Kenya needs to vaccinate at least 60 per cent of its population as fast as possible to break the cycle of transmission. Available global data shows a drop in the number of infections and deaths in countries where many accept vaccines.

“We need to achieve a critical mass of vaccinated individuals to reduce Covid-19 transmission. The country needs to secure more vaccines for its citizens,” Dr Maritim concludes.

As of June 16, 2021, only 1.2 per cent of Kenya’s population had received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, and 0.2 per cent have been fully vaccinated. This falls way short of the global average of 24 per cent.

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