Covid-19: Lack of education could be driving vaccine hesitancy, say health authorities

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  • Vaccine acceptance is higher in those who understand how vaccines work, research suggests.
  • Health authorities have called for improved education around the Covid-19 vaccine.
  • The vaccine reduces the risk of transmission, severe illness and death.

Vaccine acceptance is higher among those who feel informed about the Covid-19 vaccine. And in comparison, knowledge gaps and misinformation appeared to be driving vaccine hesitancy.

During a webinar between the Department of Health and the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra), experts shared statistics that showed 80% of vaccinated people believed they had a good understanding of how vaccines worked.

They also stated that vaccine acceptance was higher among people who believed they knew a lot about the vaccine (79%).

READ | Mandatory Covid-19 vaccination not really infringement on your rights - SAHRC

In contrast, of the 34% of respondents who said they were concerned about vaccine side effects, more than a third admitted they didn't understand how vaccines worked.

Sahpra Pharma-Covigilance manager Mafora Matlala said fears of vaccine side effects could be linked to knowledge gaps and misinformation.

She explained:

Knowledge is power. The people who get vaccinated are the ones who understand how vaccination works.

Professor Hannelie Meyer, National Immunisation and Safety Expert Committee chairperson, said that vaccine hesitancy significantly impacted the country's vaccination programme.

Meyer said that only around 20% of the South African population was currently fully vaccinated - around half of the global average.

The government had set a target of vaccinating 70% of the adult population by December. If this target was reached, it could lead to relaxed restrictions or even end the state of disaster in the second quarter of next year, based on modelling, Meyer said.

However, according to the department's statistics, only 32% of the adult population had been fully vaccinated, and 39% of all adults had received at least one vaccine dose.

READ | J&J vaccine 73.6% effective against Covid-19 infection, real-world study reveals

Meyer added that a survey had found around 37% of South Africans had said they definitely would not get vaccinated - which would make the government's target an impossibility. In addition, 24% said they would most probably not get vaccinated.

The reasons driving vaccine hesitancy were primarily around the concern about side effects, Meyer added. Other concerns included not knowing if the vaccine would work and waiting to see if it's safe.

Matlala added that most side effects were minor - such as headaches or dizziness - and these were not unexpected based on evidence produced during medical trials.

She added:

You don't need to fear the vaccine, but you do need to fear Covid-19. The vaccine is safer than the risks associated with Covid-19.

Matlala added that serious adverse reactions after immunisation were "extremely rare".

The Covid-19 vaccine had proven safe and effective, Meyer said.

She added that there was no evidence that the vaccine resulted in infertility, and it was safe for use in pregnant women.

Meyer explained that none of the vaccines in use in South Africa contained the Covid-19 virus. They, instead, carry a synthesised piece of messenger RNA. The body used this RNA to create a protein that is part of the Covid-19 virus, and the immune system, in response, produces antibodies.

As well as preventing severe illness and death, the vaccine significantly reduces the risk of infection.

Meyer cited research showing that those vaccinated were much less likely to infect others. If you are socialising with another person and had been vaccinated, there was 10 times less risk of them being infected and 20 times less risk of them infecting you. If you are both vaccinated, there is 200 times less risk of them infecting you, Meyer explained.

"We need to communicate and educate people about the vaccine," added Meyer.

If you come across Covid-19 vaccination information that you do not trust, read Covid-19 vaccine myths debunked: Get the facts here. If you can't find the facts you're looking for, email us at the address mentioned in the article and we will verify the information with medical professionals.

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