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By Orville Williams

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As the issue of vaccine hesitancy continues to beleaguer many countries that previously struggled to acquire sufficient doses, the Minister of Health is pointing to that issue as only part of a wider, urgent problem.

Sir Molwyn Joseph was, late last week, addressing the launch of a new communications campaign by the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), geared toward improving the willingness of populations across the region to get vaccinated.

He commended PAHO for its prompt response to an issue that has affected territories including Antigua and Barbuda, primarily by stalling their public vaccination programmes. He said further, that while the most pressing issue right now is getting the vaccine doses into arms, a greater problem requires similar effort in the near future.

“[Addressing] the issue of vaccine hesitancy brings to mind that there is indeed a possibility that this hesitancy in public health points to a larger problem. Even though this response is critical, we cannot ignore the possibility that vaccines as a public health measure is not fully understood.

“This might also suggest that beyond vaccines, there is a need for greater emphasis on public health education, especially in the area of primary healthcare.

“PAHO’s intervention … must also be seen in the context that if vaccine hesitancy results in the spoilage of vaccines, then that creates another problem in terms of our countries accessing the appropriate number of vaccines for the population,” Sir Molwyn explained.

Before vaccine hesitancy became an issue and even before vaccine acquisition similarly posed a challenge, many health researchers saw the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact, as evidence that global public health education needed drastic improvement.

These researchers posit that, had public health education been in a sound state, health officials would not find it so difficult to convince their people to follow the Covid-19 protocols – including mask-wearing and social distancing – or to get vaccinated as a means of protecting themselves and the rest of the population.

Sir Molwyn is, therefore, not at all alone in the belief that attention to public health education is urgently needed. He has suggested as well, that this issue could be responsible for other public health challenges the Ministry has faced in recent time.

“I’m looking beyond Covid-19 and I now have to wonder…whether or not the lack of success in fighting [Non-Communicable Diseases] NCDs and fighting simple issues such as front-of-package labelling [is] not also related to the lack of education in our population.

“If Covid has done many negative things in the population, perhaps the most positive thing that [it] has done for us, is to alert us that we have a lot more to do, in terms of getting our population on board.”

According to the latest report from the Health Ministry – up to press time yesterday – nearly 33,000 people have been given a first dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, while just over 8,500 have received a second dose.