Health official acknowledges fall-off in vaccine education

Dozens of frontline health workers – led by Chief Medical Officer Dr Rhonda Sealey-Thomas – yesterday became the first to receive a dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot under the national vaccination programme. The historic moment took place at Mount St John’s Medical Centre, observed by media. More inside. (Photo by Observer’s Carlena Knight)
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That fall-off is blamed for recent low vaccination numbers  

By Orville Williams

With the number of persons vaccinated for Covid-19 significantly lower than in the early weeks of the public vaccination programme, concerns have been raised about current attitudes toward the inoculation process, specifically their impact on the push to reach herd immunity.

According to data from the Ministry of Health, just over 1,000 persons received a first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine over the past week – a figure that pales in comparison to the more than 14,000 that were vaccinated in the first week of the programme.

Those early numbers put the country in good stead, as more than 30,000 people have now been vaccinated, meaning Antigua and Barbuda is almost halfway to reaching the figure health officials have estimated will bring about herd immunity.

The Health Ministry would have been hoping for that early momentum to be maintained, but the trickling figures have instead called for a rethink. The reason behind those low figures, according to Dr Courtney Lewis – who is the Vice-Chair of the National Technical Working Group (NTWG) on Covid-19 vaccines – is the ‘slacking off’ that came with respect to vaccine education.

“The biggest problem is, when the whole vaccination process in Antigua – the first phase so to speak – began and we started vaccinating people, once the supply began to run short, what happened was the vaccination process slowed down.

“Then education followed suit, it also slowed down. [That] should not have happened and of course, we the healthcare providers need to take [responsibility for] that fault. That is on us; we should not have allowed the education or the updates on the vaccine trials and on the vaccine development [to] slow down. The public now, of course, has to depend simply on social media or the internet to get their information.”

Among the issues that have threatened the success of vaccination programmes in some other countries are the ‘troublesome’ anti-vaccine rhetoric, the misconceptions surrounding vaccine side effects – eg, AstraZeneca and the rare, but dangerous blood clots – and lately, misinformation that suggests people have died from Covid-19 vaccines.

These issues have permeated the Antigua and Barbuda population to some extent, but as far as Dr Lewis is concerned, a ‘grand solution’ is not needed and he believes the entire vaccination programme can be rejuvenated simply with a return to proper vaccine education.

“What needs to happen is that we need to get back on the education train, we need to start to talk to the public again. We need to start to have open, honest discussions with the public about why vaccination is important, what we’re trying to achieve, what all of us as a nation want to get back to, in terms of some kind of normalcy in our lives.

“That’s only going to happen if people voluntarily step forward and want to receive the vaccine … it’s something that you have to encourage people to do. The only way people are going to do that is if they fully understand the benefits to them and the risks that are posed by getting vaccinated.”

Chief Medical Officer Dr Rhonda Sealey-Thomas also commented on the fall-off in vaccinations last week, saying that the initial stage of the vaccination programme seemingly comprised people who had the necessary information on vaccines and had already decided to take them. The health officials have previously estimated that close to 80,000 people in the country need to be fully vaccinated to reach herd immunity, which means vaccines need to be given to approximately 50,000 more persons to reach that goal.  

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