NAIROBI — About 80% of Africans surveyed said they were willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine once it's publicly available and deemed safe and effective. Of those that said they would not take a vaccine, safety was the leading concern.
The survey conducted by the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Vaccine Confidence Project, and Orb International, examined perceptions around COVID-19 vaccines in 15 countries. Sample sizes of about 1,000 people in each country, were nationally representative — with a mix of genders and age groups, as well as sampling from both urban and rural populations.
Though these results show high levels of willingness to take a vaccine, compared to other areas of the world, there were significant regional differences across Africa, said Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, during a press conference. Ethiopia had the highest willingness — 94% — whereas the Democratic Republic of the Congo only had a 59% willingness to accept a vaccine.
Though the overall results were positive, there is concern that those who are resistant could influence people who are still uncertain about whether they will ultimately take it, said Raji Tajudeen, head of public health institutes and research at Africa CDC.
He added that some of these people are not part of the anti-vaccine movement, but are people that just need more information about the vaccine. They could also be important gatekeepers that hold considerable sway over their communities, he said.
Key concerns among survey participants include not having enough trust in the safety of the vaccine, denial that the virus exists or that they personally are at risk of catching it, that the vaccine can actually give a person COVID-19 or that the vaccine was developed and manufactured too fast.
There are reasonable questions being asked around the vaccine and the public health community needs to do a better job at providing accurate information, Larson said.
“What’s important is not to dismiss them, we need to show evidence that’s not the case,” she said.
Misinformation is also pervasive. Some of the rumors in circulation include that COVID-19 was a planned event by foreign actors, that low-income individuals in Africa are being used as guinea pigs in vaccine trials, children have died as a result of vaccine trials in Africa, and that the spread of COVID-19 is linked to 5G technology — a rumor that has been linked to other diseases as well.
“What we don’t want to have happen is that sentiments around the COVID vaccine have any impact on vaccination more broadly.”— Heidi Larson, director, the Vaccine Confidence Project
Most susceptible to vaccine-misinformation include people from North Africa, men, younger people, and those who think that the threat of the disease is exaggerated.
“In the context of COVID, there has been a surge in misinformation beyond the usual misinformation that we’ve seen circulating around vaccines generally,” Larson said. “We had hoped that COVID would mitigate concerns, but in this uncertain environment it has increased.”
“What we don’t want to have happen is that sentiments around the COVID vaccine have any impact on vaccination more broadly,” she added.
The influence of concerns over safety was bigger than the influence of conspiracy among survey participants, Larson said.
The survey also examined trusted voices to provide messages. The World Health Organization ranked at the top, followed by health care workers, whereas foreign Western governments ranked at the bottom. The results showed that the Africa CDC has low trust recognition and would benefit from partnering with WHO on messaging.
There are also hopes that if vaccines campaigns are done right, it could give a boost to overall efforts to increase vaccine acceptance across a wide range of diseases, said John Nkengasong, director of Africa CDC, adding that there will be a need to work with social behavior change scientists, anthropologists, and sociologists to better understand community concerns and improve messaging.
“If we do a good job with the COVID vaccine, then I can see how with other vaccination programs, which is perhaps the most important tool in public health practice, will also benefit,” Nkengasong, said.