By Kim Harrisberg
JOHANNESBURG, April 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Wariness about taking AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine in Africa could be compounded by the African Union's decision to halt plans to procure the shot, health experts said on Friday, calling for public awareness programmes to fight misinformation.
The African Union (AU) said its announcement was not related to recent findings by European and British medicine regulators that there are possible links between the vaccine and extremely rare blood clots, but rather a case of diversifying options.
Still, experts said the timing of Thursday's announcement could fuel vaccine hesitancy.
"The announcement happening around the same time the European medical authority shared concerns over blood clots gives people more reason to amplify misinformation," said Gregory Rockson, founder of Africa-wide health care provider mPharma, which is based in Ghana.
"We need strong political leadership and clear messaging to fight growing vaccine scepticism," said Rockson, adding that less than 2% of the Ghanaian population had been vaccinated so far.
The AU said it did not want to replicate the World Health Organization-backed COVAX initiative to ensure equitable access of vaccines for low-income countries, and was focusing on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to supply 400 million doses.
COVAX aims to deliver 600 million shots — most of them from AstraZeneca — to some 40 African countries this year, enough to vaccinate 20% of their populations.
But with South Africa selling the AstraZeneca vaccine to other AU member states following concern it would be less effective in fighting the local variant, fears over using the shot have spread to other countries, health experts said.
More than 700 million vaccine doses have been administered globally, yet Africa accounts for less than 2% of the total compared to North America's 27% and Europe's 20% share, according to the latest data.
In Malawi, where only about 1% of the population have been vaccinated, conspiracy theories about the AstraZeneca shot run rife, said Precious Makiyi, a medical doctor and behavioural scientist from Blantyre.
"Now more than ever we need to understand why these theories exist and how we frame messaging targeted specifically at Malawians," said Makiyi.
Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the AU's Africa Vaccine Delivery Alliance for COVID-19, called for "community engagement with data that is locally owned and adapted to a local context."
"Younger generations have incredible networks like community theatre and radio and many mediums that may not be used in the West," Alakija said.
Alakija added that while it could be argued that the timing of the AU's AstraZeneca announcement was not ideal, the urgency of finding the best vaccine solutions for the continent had demanded swift action.
"We are in a three-way race between the vaccine, the virus, and the variants and so far the virus and variants are winning," said Alakija.
Tackling misinformation on social media and rolling out information and vaccines through primary health care facilities in urban and rural areas is essential to fighting new variants, said Rockson.
"My real concern is that people may end up missing second doses and it will be a catastrophic failure of vaccine efforts if we have to restart the clock," Rockson said.
For Alakija, vaccine confidence goes hand-in-hand with vaccine equity, adding that if Africans felt they had vaccine options, it would help dispel fears and misinformation.
"Other countries around the world have choice, why shouldn't we?" Alakija said. "Our job is to do what is best for African people, to make sure we keep Africa safe, and end the pandemic on our continent, and in doing so, end the pandemic around the world."
(Reporting by Kim @KimHarrisberg; 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)