COVID-19: Anxiety, controversy as Nigeria awaits 100,000 Pfizer vaccines

Posted by News Express | 17 January 2021 | 1,191 times

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By JOHN NWOKOCHA

Reports last week indicated that the 100,000 Pfizer-BioNTech brand of vaccines will arrive the shores of Nigeria before the end of this January. The federal government secured the anti-COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX co-financing public – private facility. The palpable anxiety on the part of the government could be felt on the arrangements being been made by it officials in anticipation of receiving the medicine.

The inoculation programme would commence with President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbanjo taking the jab of the vaccines on live TV. Other top functionaries of government would follow later. But since approving the vaccines for Nigerians against the Coronavirus pandemic the government has been confronted with more issues surrounding the vaccine importation. And this has caused anxiety on one hand and controversy on another.

First and foremost, is the growing vaccine hesitancy among Nigerians, due to a number of factors: conspiracy theory, religious beliefs and doubts of vaccines’ safety, among others. Amidst the anxiety and controversy over the vaccines Kogi State Governor, Yahaya Bello, seemed to be fueling fears and the call for rejection of the vaccines.

How? The Governor, in a video widely circulating on Facebook since Sunday morning, could be seen discouraging his crowd of supporters from taking the vaccines. In the video Bello had said, ostensibly referring to anticipation of arrival of the vaccines: “…They want to use (COVID-19) vaccines to introduce the disease that will kill you and us. God forbid!”  Those opposed to the inoculation have said there is yet no clear proof or clinical evidence that the vaccines are not harmful. Fears have risen from reports that there are no sufficient researchers’ claim that the vaccines would not complicate the health challenges nations are facing due to the pandemic’s second wave or variant strains that has been escalating despite the discovery of anti-COVID-19 vaccines. Aside this is fear of potential side effects of the vaccines.

Another worry is the claim that the vaccines contain harmful chemicals and poison and are meant to kill Africans and drastically reduce its populations. Some African leaders have rejected the anti-Covid-19 vaccine, calling it killer medicine. This has put both the credibility and integrity of the vaccines as a remedial medicine to test. So, the doubts persist.

But if the reason behind Buhari and Osinbajo’s expected live-on-TV vaccination is to allay the fears, then the government has to look for other strategies.  For, before them, world leaders like Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Nathanyehu, outgoing President of United States of America, Donald Trump, President-Elect of United State of America, Joe Biden, Prime Minister of Britain, Boris  Johnson, at different times, since last year, have been  given a dose of the jab, in order to mobilise opinion that the vaccines are safe.  But regardless of all these, the noise over the vaccines would not douse.

Funnily, some observers have described as comedy shows the attempts by world leaders to prove the vaccines’ safety by taking their jab of vaccines in front of cameras. No doubt, we might never know all we need to know about the controversial vaccines.

However, most vaccines that are used in Sub-Saharan Africa (including Nigeria) are imported from America and Europe. Because Nigeria (Africa) does not have the capacity to manufacture vaccines to meet the needs of its over 200 million population. The country can boast of competent scientists in the country. And there might have been breakthroughs in medicine generally, trado-medical and what have you this has not solved the problems in the country’s health sector.

The major challenge now is how to checkmate the rapidly spreading second wave of the coronavirus disease in the country. By and large the challenge includes tackling fake drugs. Only recently, the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration (NAFDAC) reported that there are fake vaccines in Nigeria. Stressing that it has not approved any COVID vaccines, NAFDAC warned that fake vaccines can cause COVID-like illnesses or other serious diseases that could kill.

Unfortunately, the second wave of the disease has hit Nigeria hard. As at Monday, January 18, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) recorded a surge in cases, with records showing 1,617 new cases – being the second highest daily tally in 18 states. Across the country, a total of 112,004 infections were reported with 14 deaths that occurred that Monday, from the disease, raising the total fatality toll to 1,449.

Sadly, in 24 hours, Nigeria reported one of its deadliest days of the pandemic with 15 dying from the disease the previous Sunday. As it looks the chance of spreading the disease is high and calls for concern beyond politicising the vaccines unnecessarily.

While unfolding its plans for inoculation of the citizens, the government had said it is targeting 40% of the population for the exercise this year.  How exactly does government hope to achieve that in the face of severe infrastructure deficit?  It is necessary to point out that across the country health facilities are either overstretched or are lacking. Beginning from early January, according to reports Nigeria has experienced a spike in the number of victims. The death rate has been increasing. Yet, these figures are believed to fall short of the real toll since the number of tests is low due to lack of facilities particularly in the rural communities.

Also troubling is reports that Nigeria does not have adequate storage facilities to hold the vaccines at the required temperature of minus 70 degree Celsius. Also, experts have raised concern over a challenge of transporting the vaccines to reach millions of people in areas already bedeviled by inadequate hospital facilities or complete lack of it. Experts have said the demand and cost for vaccines are very high, making it impossible to accommodate many doses anytime soon.

Can the government confidently say that there has been an improvement in testing of imported medicines in the country that has been adjudged poor still, over the years? The government has been silent over a pertinent question on the capacity of the health workers to cope with the pressure to vaccinate large numbers in a short period of time. Judging from experience this sort of programme lacked equity in distribution. So, there is fear that political meddling might mar the intention of government for the citizens to get vaccinated. It is left for the government to ensure that nobody is excluded in the vaccine rollout if it is serious about public health safety.

For government to achieve accelerated vaccination in the country, it is necessary for the NCDC and relevant agencies to gain insights from what has happened in some advanced countries of the world such as Israel (world’s fastest in vaccination of its population) where majority of vaccinations took place outside hospitals, but at specialist centres in order to maximise the impact of the vaccination, interrupt transmission of the disease and ultimately end the COVID-19 plague.

•John Nwokocha is an Abuja-based Senior Journalist.

 


Source: News Express

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