Nigeria is currently witnessing a surge in cases of Covid-19 Omicron variant amidst vaccine hesitancy among the citizens. SAMSON BENJAMIN in this report examines the reasons for the hesitancy and the way out.
Data released by the World Health Organization (WHO) recently showed that Nigeria missed the 40 percent vaccination target set by the World Health Assembly, the highest health policy making body for countries following the failure to vaccinate at least 40 per cent of the total eligible citizens by the end of 2021.
This is as the country also did not make the list of African countries that have vaccinated at least 10 percent. The Africa regional office for the WHO during the end of year (2021) press briefing announced that Africa was officially in the fourth wave with more waves imminent due to poor vaccination coverage.
Speaking during the briefing, the WHO regional director for Africa, Dr. Moeti Matshidioso, said: “Africa is now officially in the fourth wave of the pandemic which is partly due to the Omicron variant. There has been an 83 percent surge in new cases on the continent compared to the previous weeks. This is the fastest surge recorded since May last year. We can’t afford to drop our guards. We are entering into the holiday season with vaccine coverage still disappointingly low and with this, more waves are imminent.
“As things stand, predictions are that if Africa continues like this, Africa may not reach the 70 per cent vaccination target until August 2024. Just six countries have managed to meet the target of fully vaccinating 40 per cent of the citizens with only 20 managing to achieve 10 per cent vaccination coverage.
“We are seeing increases in some countries in West Africa. It is of concern that these increases are happening before the people start moving, travelling for the festive season. This means we really need to be preparing in those places to make sure that things do not get out of control. Indeed if it is necessary, it might be useful to impose local restrictions most in terms of gatherings.”
In the data shared by the global health body, the countries that have reached the ten per cent vaccination target were listed as follows: Algeria, Botswana, Carpe Verde, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Rwanda, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, South Africa, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Egypt and Liberia.
WHO also added that six out of those countries namely Botswana, Carpe Verde, Mauritius, Morocco, Seychelles and Tunisia have achieved 40 per cent vaccination targets.
On the countries that have not reached the target, it stated that Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Tanzania, Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Senegal, Somalia, Uganda, Angola, Cameroun among others.
Meanwhile, data obtained from the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NHCDA) by this reporter revealed that Bayelsa, Yobe and Sokoto are states with the lowest rate of vaccination. This is as the agency on its Facebook page hailed the state governments of Nasarawa, Ogun, Jigawa, Oyo and Kwara as top performing in areas of mass vaccination.
As of December 13, 2021, a total of 8,081,494 had received their first doses while 4,007,978 had received their second doses.
On the chart, Lagos was stated to have vaccinated the highest number of citizens having vaccinated 1,208,465 persons with the first dose, Ogun followed with 561,864; Oyo 471,732; FCT 310,258; Jigawa 288,309.
In the case of Bayelsa only 41,294 have received the first dose while 18,381 have received their second dose, Yobe was also highlighted to have vaccinated 65,369 with first dose while 42,784 have received second dose.
Sokoto was also said to have vaccinated 68,886 with first dose while 43,345 have received second doses.
The variant surge
Sadly, the poor rates of vaccination are coming amidst surging cases of the Omicron variant across the country. The WHO has said the Omicron is currently the dominant Covid-19 variant in Nigeria. As of December 20, Nigeria had recorded 45 cases of the variant, according to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).
In a statement on Thursday, the WHO disclosed that 30 African countries and at least 142 worldwide have detected the Omicron variant, while the Delta variant had been reported in 42 African nations.
“In countries experiencing a surge in cases, the fast-spreading Omicron variant has become the dominant type. While it took around four weeks for the Delta variant to surpass the previously dominant Beta, Omicron outpaced Delta within two weeks in the worst-hit African countries.
“In West Africa, where Covid-19 cases are on the rise, the number of Omicron sequences undertaken by countries including Cabo Verde, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal, is growing. And Omicron is currently the dominant variant in both Cabo Verde and Nigeria.”
Speaking to this reporter, a Professor of Medical Virology, May Ekwealor, said the increase in deaths and cases were fuelled by the rise in the number of new variants and vaccination gaps among individuals, who have refused to get vaccinated.
Ekwealor explained that viruses mutate and the forms they take after mutation could not be easily predicted and as such could prove to be much more deadly than previous variants.
“Viruses mutate and you cannot predict the nature of the variants. Some variants can be less deadly, while others can become more deadly. In the case of Covid-19, there have been different mutations and though we cannot really say which is the deadliest, reports revealed that the Delta variant wreaked havoc among the unvaccinated individuals and also the immuno-compromised persons.
“Also, when you look at those vaccinated, how many percent of fully vaccinated individuals do we have? It is not just about taking your first dose and saying you are protected.
“No matter how you see it, vaccination is still the only way out. The virus can assume another form tomorrow, which can be much more deadly, but the only people who will be protected are those who are fully vaccinated.
“Take your vaccines and if there is a need, scientists may recommend additional boosters to make sure that individuals get adequate protection. It is better to be safe than sorry,” she said.
In a chat with this reporter on the Covid-19 vaccine apathy shown by many Nigerians, a retired chief consultant and chest physician at the University of Abuja Teaching Hospital, Dr. Christopher Eze, said the lack of trust by Nigerians had played a significant role in the small number vaccinated so far.
He said, “Many Nigerians already know the usefulness of vaccines, but there is this fear as to whether there might be side effects of taking the Covid-19 vaccine. Many of them are waiting for other brave Nigerians to first take the vaccine to see whether there might be side effects before they proceed to takeit or not.
“Consequently, Nigeria is currently witnessing a surge in Covid-19 infections largely due to the refusal of many people to adhere to Covid-19 guidelines on the one hand and vaccine apathy on the other.
“It is bad enough that the country witnessed a setback in the vaccination drive between July and August due to a scarcity of doses. With the arrival of more vaccines in recent weeks, it was expected that Nigerians would throng the various health centres across the country for vaccines, but this has not been the case.”
He added: “Consequently, the infection rate has continued to soar. To make matters worse, the insecurity in some northern states is undermining the administration of vaccines. Insecurity remains a huge factor as it similarly delayed Nigeria’s goal of eradicating polio in 2017.
“To be fair, this challenge of convincing people to take jabs is not peculiar to Nigeria as anti-vaccine campaigners hold protests in several developed countries. But recent events have shown how countries that failed to vaccinate their citizens paid the price. In India earlier in the year, a poll showed that over 70 per cent of citizens were not inclined towards taking jabs despite the availability of vaccines. The result was a whopping 400,000 cases per day and 153 deaths per hour in the country.
“With the spread of the hyper-infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus, which has plunged Nigeria into a fourth wave, the nation’s demography and weak health system, now exacerbated by frequent doctors’ strikes, could spell doom. Despite the imminent threat, many state governments are not showing the required level of seriousness with reports stating that 13 states are no longer testing for the virus. This is most unfortunate.”
Also, a medical practitioner, Dr. Oludare Olaoye, told Blueprint Weekend that there was a general skepticism among people regarding vaccination.
Olaoye said, “Also, since there have been various conspiracy theories regarding the Covid vaccine especially the ones on the vaccine being a sign of the antichrist, as well as the 5G and microchip implantation have further heightened fears.
“Whether we believe these conspiracy theories or not, we cannot deny the effect it has on a lot of people – even educated ones – and these beliefs, in turn, affect their reception to the vaccine.”
He added that there was a misconception among certain Nigerians that the virus affected only the rich, especially since most of the reported cases were of politicians and celebrities.
“There are many persons who have died from this disease but because they didn’t get tested or couldn’t afford to go to centres where tests could be carried out, it was never revealed.”
He also said the distrust Nigerians had for the federal government was another factor which contributed to the hesitancy towards taking the vaccine, adding that the Federal Government’s copy and paste vaccination methods of other countries also contributed to the small number of vaccinated people in the country.
Speaking exclusively to this reporter on the way out of the vaccine hesitancy, a medical virologist and immunologist, Dr. Mathew Durojaiye, urged the federal government and major stakeholders in the vaccination process should embark on sensitisation programmes regarding the benefits of being vaccinated.
He said, “Vaccine hesitancy is majorly a by-product of misinformation surrounding the pandemic and the vaccines. Some of the myths that have been peddled are that the vaccines cause infertility and that Africans are being used as guinea pigs. Videos claiming that Bill Gates funded the speedy vaccine production to depopulate Africa have circulated on social media. Also, claims of microchip surveillance on vaccination have received a large audience in Africa.
“These myths have reached a vast audience through social media, and debunking these myths on the same level of publicity is one way to counter the falsehoods.
“This publicity can be accomplished by mobilising communities like religious leaders and youth leaders to drive a house-to-house campaign and use conventional media such as the radio and television to help people understand the vaccine correctly. African countries can employ tactics that have worked to combat disease epidemics. During the Ebola virus outbreak, community leaders’ involvement and input were crucial in disseminating misconceptions about the virus. The method also aided in understanding the virus.”
He said further that, “There should be testimonies of consented individuals who have taken the vaccines using different outlets on social media and news by the appropriate governmental and non-governmental agencies.
“The government and the private sector must prioritise public trust building above everything else. Efforts should be made to demonstrate the advantage and safety of vaccines.”
Meanwhile, the president of the Society of Family Physicians of Nigeria (SOFPON), Dr. Nnaedozie Obiegbu, has stressed the importance of family physicians in curbing vaccine hesitancy in the country.
Obiegbu said this at a briefing organised by the group in Lagos as part of activities marking the annual general meeting of SOFPON.
According to Obiegbu, many patients turn to family physicians when faced with a choice of making a medical decision due to long-standing relationships and trust.
He said offering preventive health services and health promotion was essential to family medicine.
“Vaccination constitutes one of the most cost effective clinical preventive packages and the cornerstone of the management and curtailing of infectious disease outbreaks.
“It is our duty to remain up-to-date with the best evidence as the pandemic progresses and ensure we provide accurate information on preventive measures, self-management of symptoms, safety of vaccination, as well as defusing incorrect and detrimental information,” he said.