Opinion

Science to the fore in the Covid-19 vaccine programme

Student and youth health and wellness agency supports the science-oriented approach health minister Zweli Mkhize has applied to the vaccination effort

12 February 2021 - 11:15 By Ramneek Ahluwalia
Viral evolution resulting from mutations is a known phenomenon that happens across all viruses known to humankind.
Viral evolution resulting from mutations is a known phenomenon that happens across all viruses known to humankind.
Image: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Covid-19 is a new pandemic for humankind with much still unknown.

As the pandemic evolves, we must continue to base our prevention and treatment strategies on current and forthcoming knowledge.

Vaccine development and rollout is a hot topic. Transparency about the science, including research and development, that have to date gone into the Covid-19 vaccines, their efficacy and adverse effects is what takes us forward and how science and societies advance.

Viral evolution resulting from mutations is a known phenomenon that happens across all viruses known to humankind.

We are seeing the same with SARS-CoV-2. For the virus to survive in a new vector (humans), it keeps mutating to form new variants and in doing so, it tries to escape the human antibody response.

The job of the vaccines is the same – to produce an antibody response to defeat the virus - and the variant keeps trying to escape the developed antibodies for it to survive. This makes a vaccination strategy extremely difficult, as experienced in our country.

SARS-CoV-2 is smart and is not a one-size-fit-all virus. Some individuals who are infected suffer serious symptoms, some perish, and many barely know they have contracted the virus. Some have Covid toe and tongue, and many have a cough and aches.

As a result, we have to exhaust all means at our disposal to ensure we are protected from the coronavirus.

There are many uncertainties at this time but what remains consistent is that all hands must be on deck to provide aid where it is needed.

For our academic institutions, the burning matter is to protect this academic year while remaining agile to deal with likely future waves.

Models helps us to predict when the next wave of infections may happen, but as we have seen with the second wave and the emergence of highly transmissible variants, it becomes very difficult to predict future waves.

This limits our post-school education and training (PSET) institutions to follow the proposed academic plans and as the higher education community and public at large, we need to adapt to deal with its unpredictability.

SA’s vaccine rollout plan is set to reach 40 million people, which is a daunting project for any country.

Higher Health, a national entity that works on behalf of the higher education and training department and under the governance of Universities SA, will partner with the health department to train volunteers within the post-school education sector to assist with administering the vaccines.

I am proud to say we are well positioned to do so, considering our many thousand strong network of health-care practitioners, champions and their allies across campuses.

With the academic year about to go into full swing, as a national post-schooling sector health services agency, we are ready to mobilise existing facilities and structures.

They are sector-friendly, purpose-built and battle-tested during the nearly two decades of our mission to stem the tide of HIV, STIs and TB, support sexual health and reproductive services and play a meaningful role in addressing myths, stigma, gender-based violence and mental health.

Crucially, our resources, processes and infrastructure have to have buy-in from the youth with whom we have engendered trust. I am certain our assistance can ease the burden on other vaccination facilities and avoid overcrowding.

Thanks to the excellence of our own scientists at identifying a second, more aggressive SARS-CoV-2 strain, we know our youth are equally susceptible towards acquiring infection, like any adult.

Global data has shown youth are the biggest carriers of the coronavirus as most remain asymptomatic or mildly infected while spreading the virus to the more vulnerable older age group.

With most of our elders at risk and the high number of our population with comorbidities, our youth have become care-givers and helpers in  their families.

They are dealing with so much and should be saluted for putting aside expectations, dreams and hopes that come with matriculating and greater independence traditionally associated with tertiary education. Covid-19 has rewritten the social rulebook and the 501Y.V2 variant even more so as it threatens our youth.  

To break the chain of infection, communication about and vaccination effort must start and include the youth from the onset. This is where Higher Health can offer support and commitment to student health while continuing to ensure exposure is restricted and families are protected as far as possible.      

It is understandable that many people remain unsure of the facts and apprehensive about receiving the vaccine. In uncertain times, we must be cautious about invalidating concerns and fears. Communication to allay vaccine hesitancy must be both compassionate and science-based.

What is becoming important is our ability to distinguish between trustworthy information and unfounded theories that can further fan the flames of distrust and fear in an already fearful situation.

I believe our greatest impact will be by focusing on the youth.

Not only are today’s young people perhaps the most literate generation ever in SA, they have the trust of their elders in their communities and can teach others how to navigate things like WhatsApp chain messages and how to check the veracity of information shared on Facebook and Twitter.

With fatigue setting in and doubt arising about whether life will ever go back to normal, it is important to become more practical and be empathetic with those who differ in their perspectives around the vaccine.
Prof Ramneek Ahluwalia

With fatigue setting in and doubt arising about whether life will ever go back to normal, it is important to become more practical and be empathetic with those who differ in their perspectives around the vaccine.

What we have to fight is distraction from our common goal and, in this case, distorted untruths. We must all operate from proven facts. This is an essential part of the rollout that requires focus. We have much to lose if we don’t.

The virus is more aggressive, our economy is struggling and the youth are our chance to get vaccine buy-in. While no individual will be forced to take the vaccine, we know our youth can be the catalysts for early vaccine adoption.

Higher Health will be at the forefront to arm them with knowledge, to get them vaccinated on our campuses and to help them inspire their communities.

The virus has revealed much that is wrong about the world and forced us to come back to humanity. Through social distancing and isolation, we realised the power of unity, albeit in an unexpected sense. In understanding our interconnectedness, we understand keeping ourselves safe means keeping others safe.

This is the social compact we have lived by all these months. It may feel like a solitary endeavour, however, through this, collectively we are uniting to create a pandemic-proof future.

 

  • Dr (Prof) Ahluwalia is the CEO of Higher Health.

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