With misinformation being spread about a vaccine for Covid-19, will this scupper the hard-fought gains that have been made in immunisation in Africa? Desmond Davies reports
BEFORE the outbreak of Covid-19, immunisation programmes in Africa were in full swing.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the global Vaccine Alliance (GAVI) had managed to achieve a high rate of immunisation, given that at the turn of the century misinformation and disinformation had slowed down the various programmes fighting preventable diseases such as measles and polio.
In Northern Nigeria, for example, false reports that the polio immunisation programme in 2004 was a Western plot to sterilise Muslims put paid to the exercise.
Parents stopped their children from being vaccinated against the disease and, consequently, polio took hold not just in Nigeria but spread to other African countries that had been previously unaffected.
It took years of hard work by GAVI and the WHO to reassure parents that there was nothing sinister about the immunisation programme.
Thus, by the end of 2019, Nigeria had gone three years without recording a case of polio, thus placing the country in a position where the disease would soon be totally eradicated, according to the WHO.
This was a far cry from 2012 when the UN agency said Nigeria accounted for half of all polio cases globally.
Now, with the focus on fighting Covid-19 and the overabundance of negative social media comments about a vaccine for the virus, global health bodies are worried that the successful immunisation programme in Africa could be stalled.
But Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, cautioned last month: ‘Disease outbreaks must not remain a threat when we have safe and effective vaccines to protect us.
‘While the world strives to develop a new vaccine for Covid-19 at record speed, we must not risk losing the fight to protect everyone, everywhere against vaccine-preventable diseases. ‘These diseases will come roaring back if we do not vaccinate.’
Health experts do not now want the added problem of rumours to erode the confidence in life-saving vaccines, leading potentially to an increase in preventable diseases.
Speaking at the virtual World Health Assembly on Monday, Dr Tedros said: ‘Although Covid-19 is rightly the focus of the world’s attention now, we must not lose focus on sustaining and accelerating other initiatives that have saved millions of lives in recent years – like the work of GAVI.’
In the last 20 years, Gavi has been involved in the vaccination of 760 million children around the world, preventing more than 13 million deaths.
The Alliance has set an ambitious goal to immunise 300 million more children with 18 vaccines by 2025.
With the successes recorded in the past two decades, GAVI says it is clear that vaccines are one of the most cost-effective investments in health and development in history.
It has helped save children’s lives and protect people’s health by increasing equitable use of vaccines in lower-income countries.
But with unsubstantiated material on social media increasing people’s fears about vaccines and immunisation, there is a dire need for information that would help reduce what experts call vaccine hesitancy in Africa.
‘I think that the AU’s Centre for Disease Control and African scientists should play a more proactive role in the overall development of global disease remedies in order to give ordinary Africans confidence in the various immunisation programmes,’ a health expert in London told Africa Briefing.