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Vaccine Hesitancy? Misinformation Kills

A day before Eid-ul-Fitr, Federal Minister for Planning and Development and the Chief of the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) Asad Umar announced that the registration for COVID-19 registration for 30 years and older will begin after Eid. A day before Eid, Asad Umar tweeted, “As vaccine supply continues to improve and vaccination capacity gets enhanced in all federating units, we continue to expand the categories of those who are eligible to get vaccinated. Starting Sunday the 16th of May, registration will be open to all 30 years and older citizens.”

While doctors, health practitioners and data science communicators around the globe are taking lead in removing any misconceptions being raised by the masses, Pakistan seems to be lacking on this front. We can see such efforts being made by healthcare professionals in the US and the UK via social media particularly Twitter and TikTok. 

While we see government representatives encouraging the masses to get vaccinated, health practitioners need to do more in this regard by removing any fears and misconceptions through scientific information. 

Asad Umar on Saturday in a tweet said, “Got my 2nd dose of vaccination today. Please do not delay your 2nd dose. Generally, Pakistani’s have been good about getting the 2nd dose on time with more than 80% doing so. However, in the last few days before Eid there was a drop in the number of people coming for the 2nd dose.”

Generally, Pakistanis have shown a good response in getting vaccinated and those who can afford to buy the COVID-19 vaccine are also getting vaccinated as soon as they can and proudly post pictures on social media. Some people even managed to get vaccinated out of turn in the beginning. However, there is still a fraction of the population who is reluctant in getting vaccinated, and the reasons are various.

“I didn’t even take pension from the government. Why should I get the vaccine from the government? I leave it for someone deserving,” said Azhar, a farmer, when asked if he will get vaccinated. When told he can privately buy the vaccine if he doesn’t want it for free, Azhar aged 68 said, “No, I am a healthy and strong man. I live in a village and eat pure organic food. Nothing will happen.”

Qamar, 79, had his own reasons for not getting the vaccine. “My friend became corona positive after getting the first dose of the vaccine,” he said. “Also, Prime Minister Imran Khan got infected after getting vaccinated. He must have had the best vaccine available, still, he became corona positive,” he added.

To such excuses, Dr Faheem Younus, Head of Infectious Diseases, Maryland University, provided a perfect answer in one of his tweets saying, “Why XYZ died of COVID after vaccination?” is like asking, why people die in car crashes despite wearing a seat belt. It’s multifactorial. But NO vaccine is 100% effective. If you know of a scientifically proven better option, present it. If not, get the vaccine.”

While the government opens registration for 30-39 age group today, people are raising concerns about the negative impacts of COVID-19 vaccination on fertility. It is pertinent to mention here that similar concerns were raised against the polio vaccine as well.

Dr Shamaila Anwar, a data science communicator and Team Halo Guide, when contacted by The Nation said, “Firstly, I am glad that people are raising any concerns they have about the vaccines. People like myself are here to help, we don’t want people to suffer in silence and it is important everyone is able to make an informed choice about being vaccinated.”

“There is no evidence to suggest that any of the COVID-19 vaccines affect fertility or evidence to suggest they will harm future pregnancies.”

Having a PhD in Epidemiology and a background in the development and management of clinical trials, she has keen interest in understanding health inequalities and addressing these by improving science and health literacy through community engagement. She further said, “How did this rumour start?  The rumour is based on tentative link that mRNA vaccines can target a protein called syncytin-1, which is needed for the placental formation and successful pregnancies. But these claims are untrue, none of the available mRNA vaccines target a protein called syncytin-1. Please speak to your doctor if you have any concerns, they will be happy to address them. If you are pregnant, please consult your doctor before getting vaccinated.”

Highlighting the importance of verified information, Dr Anwar said, “Misinformation kills so please use only verified sources of information.”

While the government works on expanding COVID-19 vaccination registration for eligible groups, there is a percentage of the Pakistani population that is still hesitant to get vaccinated against coronavirus due to various misconceptions.

Better communication strategies are needed to impart the message better and to aware the population of the consequences either of their choices could have. Furthermore, the need for community engagement can’t be stressed enough.

Not just the government, the burden rests on the shoulders of each and every individual to convince their family members and friends who are still hesitant in getting the vaccination.

–The writer is member staff. She tweets @AfsarAfsana

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