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Guinea pigs and misinformation – COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy is a growing threat

Written by Lilita Gcwabe

Vaccine hesitancy in South Africa is a growing threat to fighting the COVID-19 epidemic but health workers remain resolute that access to a vaccine will save lives.

Tshepo Molai has been ignoring the emails and SMS’s from different medical insurance companies inviting him to register for the COVID-19 vaccine. Molai is one of a large number of South Africans showing vaccine hesitancy.

Vaccine hesitancy is the resistance of, or the delay in acceptance of the vaccination despite the availability of vaccination services. It also one of the ten greatest threats to global health , according to the World Health Organisation.

Molai, a 60-year-old Pretoria resident, has been vaccinated before but distrusts the technology used to develop the COVID-19 vaccine specifically. The pause of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine rollout, which was quickly resumed after tests showed it was safe to use, scared Molai.

“In my opinion, the new mRNA technology used to manufacture the vaccine has not been properly tested. The recent suspension of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in America, and eventually in South Africa, due to the blood clots it caused to the few, is just one of the reflections of the trial and error basis that the side-effects are being monitored on. I am not willing to be a guinea pig to find out what further side effects there may be,” he said.

Molai, who heads up infrastructure and logistics for a mining company, has no problem with vaccines that have been used for decades but has doubts because he believes the COVID-19 shot was developed too quickly.

“I am not concerned about individual cases. What remains is that, initially when the vaccination roll-out started, the manufacturers didn’t know that there were going to be blood clots. The vaccine trials also did not show this as a possible effect, and then few months into the vaccination, there were blood clots. Nobody knows how prevalent other effects will be, so why would I expose myself?”

Vaccine hesitancy in SA

Since COVID-19 vaccine trials began in South Africa in June 2020, the attitude against its use in South Africa spread quickly. This was  fuelled by the rise of fake news, mistrust in the government and a lack of information about the manufacturing process of the vaccine and its long-term side effects.

The University of Johannesburg, in partnership with the Human Sciences Research Council, published a  survey on vaccine hesitancy in January. Sampling 10,000 people, the survey showd that  that while 52% of people would definitely take the vaccine, there is a large number of people who are unsure about taking a vaccine.

Fifteen percent of participants don’t know if they would take a vaccine, 6% probably wouldn’t take a vaccine and 12% of people surveyed definitely would not take a vaccine, the survey found. Participants’ main concerns included potential side effects (25%), and effectiveness (18%) of the vaccines. Only 7% mentioned concerns relating to conspiracies, and 4% cited religious or occult issues with the vaccine.

Misinformation, fake news and conspiracy theories

In some instance, vaccine hesitancy in South Africa can also be linked to the history of Apartheid colonial rule. Historically, racist scientific practices have misused black bodies as testing sites for new technology.

Simnikiwe Kalimashe, 23, said that she will not be taking the vaccine because most of the information she has read from social media has convinced her that the vaccine is not safe.

“I mostly get my news from the internet and not from news channels. I’d say this may have influenced me in a negative way because most of what I have read has been discouraging me from believing that the vaccine was created in the interest of protecting Africans,” said the Pretoria citizen.

Kalimashe said that one of the rumors she came across was that the vaccine was a way to depopulate Africa.

In response to this misinformation, the Vaccine Literacy Manual compiled by Section27 dispels rumours like the one that Kalimashe came across. It explains that many African scientists and experts have been involved in the development of vaccines, and the participation of people from all over Africa in the trials attests to its safety for everyone who uses it.

Vaccine can keep people out of hospitals

Manager of the COVID-19 unit at and registered nurse at Kloof Hospital in Pretoria, Alta Matthee told Health-e News that her husband might still be alive if he had access to a COVID-19 vaccine.

“My husband was also an essential worker and was diagnosed with the coronavirus on the 26th of December 2020. He fought for his life but sadly lost it early this year on the 24th of January. If my husband had the opportunity to take the COVID-19 vaccine, I believe he would’ve still been here with me today. It is our responsibility to save ourselves,” she said.

Matthee urged people to protect their families, colleagues and strangers around them, by getting vaccinated when they get the opportunity to do so. In her work, Matthee sees a short supply of ventilators, medical equipment and exhausted staff. Vaccines, she said, would give people “fighting chance.”

Immunity is everyone’s responsibility

Mmaletsatsi Mamabolo, also a unit manager and nurse at Kloof Hospital in Pretoria, has received the COVID-19 vaccine and is encouraging others to do so too.

“As a healthcare worker for 26 years, I have seen the devastation caused by severe illnesses, especially during the HIV pandemic. This has always encouraged me to have a pro-vaccination attitude. I am one of the many healthcare workers who did not feel any COVID-19 symptoms after getting vaccinated, I was relieved to be able to do my work knowing I am protected,” she said.

Mamabolo said that achieving herd immunity in South Africa is everyone’s responsibility.

“Being in the forefront at work has made protecting my family and people around me not an option. I encourage people to continue practicing the safety regulations like wearing a mask, keeping a social distance and avoiding overcrowded places, in order to prevent a third wave.”—Health-e News

About the author

Lilita Gcwabe