By Lin Taylor
LONDON, Feb 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Will I become infertile? Are you sure it's safe? Why was it developed so quickly? I just don't trust it.
When it comes to questions about COVID-19 vaccines, medical assistant Rukshana Fahima has heard it all — and she is well-placed to answer. She had her own doubts too.
"At first I was quite apprehensive with the vaccine because ... they created it in just a year. I was concerned," she said, wearing protective equipment inside an east London mosque that has been turned into a vaccination centre.
"You hear so many things from different people and it sometimes plays on you. But you've got to do your own research. I feel more confident now that the vaccine is there to protect everybody," the 24-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Fahima, who has Bangladeshi heritage and has since had a COVID-19 shot, is one of several health workers vaccinating people at the mosque in a bid to boost inoculation rates among Black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) communities.
Though Britain's COVID-19 vaccination drive has been underway since January, official data shows many people from ethnic minorities are not showing up.
Nearly all recipients of the vaccine in England as of Feb 2. have been white, according to the Royal College of General Practitioners, which analysed data by the state-run National Health Service (NHS).
Of those who have been vaccinated so far, 1.7% were Black and 5.3% were Asian — far short of the 3.5% and 7.8% that each group represents as a share of the country's total population, the report added.
White people were more than twice as likely to receive the jab than Black British people, and one-and-a-half times more likely than those with Asian heritage, the analysis showed.
The coronavirus crisis in Britain has exposed health disparities between different ethnic groups.
Black and Asian people in England are up to 50% more likely to die after becoming infected with the virus, and tend to live in poor, overcrowded households and have jobs that put them at greater risk, according to an official study.
Misinformation spread through social media and messaging apps, coupled with greater mistrust of the government, and the legacy of historical medical experiments conducted on Black people have stoked vaccine hesitancy, health experts said.
Last year, a French doctor sparked outrage by suggesting COVID-19 treatments should be tested in Africa.
"People are understandably uncomfortable because of this history of structural medical racism," said Sandra Husbands, the director of public health in Hackney, an ethnically diverse district in east London.
From slave plantations to the 1932 Tuskegee experiment, in which African American men were falsely told they were being treated for syphilis, Black people have historically been mistreated in the name of science, said Husbands.
"They're just concerned about putting themselves forward for something they think might be experimental. Now at this point, things aren't actually experimental and that's what we need to get people to understand," she said.
A January survey of more than 12,000 people in Britain showed 18% of respondents, mostly Black people and those of South Asian descent, said they were unlikely to take the COVID-19 vaccine if offered one.
"Everyone would assume that because ethnic minorities are dying at a higher rate that they would flock to these vaccines, but it's not that simple," said Gwenetta Curry, a racial health disparities lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. "(The pandemic) has highlighted all these inequalities that have always existed."
Britain's health ministry said it was investing £8 billion ($11 billion) to help councils tackle false information about vaccines within ethnic minority groups as well as the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on these communities.
"We want every eligible person to benefit from a free vaccine, regardless of their ethnicity or religious beliefs," Minister for COVID Vaccine Deployment Nadhim Zahawi said in a written statement.
As well as dying at a higher rate during the pandemic from COVID-19, people from ethnic minority groups in Britain have also been hit harder by job losses, researchers found last June.
"The whole pandemic has highlighted what an unequal society we are, both in financial deprivation and health disparities," said Farzana Hussain, a local doctor who runs a medical practice in Newham, one of London's most deprived areas.
Having been part of the community for more than two decades, Hussain said she has worked hard at earning trust from her patients, which she believes is instrumental in combating vaccine misinformation and alleviating fears.
"A lot of people are scared to call their GP (general practitioner). I want people to be armed with the fact, not the fiction, and to talk to people like me about what their fears are," said the British-Bangladeshi doctor.
As the only Somali doctor in Leicester, in central England, Samira Hassan spends much of her time busting myths about the vaccines online and within her community — even convincing her own mother to go for the jab.
"Not a lot of (ethnic minority) people have access to doctors and health professionals who can speak their mother tongue, who can understand their cultural background," she said. "That representation is not there, and it's very difficult to bridge that gap if people don't feel like an institution is working for them and serves them."
Hassan said official information about vaccines needed to be better communicated to Black and ethnic minority communities and not forced onto anyone who is still trying to figure it out.
At the London mosque, Marklene, a 61-year-old Black care home worker, was nonchalant about the vaccine she had just received.
"In the beginning, knowing nothing about it and hearing what people are saying ... maybe you think (there's something wrong with it)," she said. "But I have friends that take it and they said it's alright. I'm going to have to take it ... because this virus isn't going away anytime soon, so better to protect myself."
($1 = 0.7280 pounds) (Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)