Vaccine hesitancy impacting child immunisation rates

Health officials warn that the Covid pandemic and associated fears of vaccination have set back almost three decades of progress against polio and measles (Photo courtesy UNICEF)
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By Nikisha Smith

Hesitancy towards Covid vaccines is said to now be negatively influencing the Caribbean’s normally good record of infectious disease immunisations for children. 

Vaccine hesitancy was a major topic during an online webinar jointly hosted by development agency USAID and children’s charity UNICEF for regional journalists on June 23.

The rise of vaccine hesitancy in the region has affected regular child immunisation programmes against diseases like measles, mumps and tetanus. Normally, the Caribbean has one of the best immunisation records in the world, say officials, but those gains have taken a hit since the onset of Covid-19.

There has been an observed correlation between general vaccine hesitancy and doubt over their efficacy, coupled with fear over the long-term effects.

Moreover, Tristan Ward, Communication for Development Officer for UNICEF’s Eastern Caribbean area, pointed out that a rise in poverty has also been associated with a reduction of vaccination rates in children.

In May 2022, Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa Etienne said the last two years of the pandemic had set back almost three decades of vaccine progress against polio and measles, creating a real risk for their reintroduction in the region.

USAID and UNICEF commissioned the research body, Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES), to conduct a study to understand why hesitancy exists. It was done between October and November 2021, and around 6,000 participants from six Eastern Caribbean countries were sampled.

The findings were published in a joint report entitled ‘Covid-19 Vaccine Hesitancy Survey Report 2021’.

The findings stated that 62 percent of the respondents across the sub-region indicated that they were vaccinated against Covid-19, while 38 percent said that they were not. 

PAHO epidemiologist Dr Franka des Vignes said vaccine uptake in the Caribbean is lower in comparison to other regions of the Americas. The Americas Society reports that the United States has 66.7 percent fully vaccinated and Canada has 82.5 percent.

As of mid-May, PAHO reported over 70 percent vaccination in nine Latin American countries. With even doctors and nurses also refusing to get Covid jabs, des Vignes said that reluctance has been a challenge to public health across the Caribbean.

Greg Pirio, of USAID, explained that some of the common concerns among the vaccine hesitant were due to misinformation – for example, that the jab would cause infertility or erectile dysfunction, or alter one’s DNA, among others. The research stated that social media and personal internet research were the two most relied upon sources by those deciding not to get vaccinated.

This hesitancy also extended to vaccinating children, with the main reason given – 17 percent of the sample – is that respondents felt they were too young to receive Covid-19 jabs at the primary and pre-primary level, followed by the next most common reason of exercising their right to choose as the parent.

When parents did allow their children to take vaccines, they tended to have done more research or spoken to their healthcare provider, the report added.

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