Religion and social media blamed for Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy

Religion and social media blamed for hesitancy, but many join queues for the jab

29 August 2021 - 00:00 By tanya farber
Motivational speaker and author Nikki Bush says "human beings always need to justify their decisions and their point of view to make themselves feel ... more confident, especially at times when they don't really know or are unsure but they have to take a stand and take action or not".
Motivational speaker and author Nikki Bush says "human beings always need to justify their decisions and their point of view to make themselves feel ... more confident, especially at times when they don't really know or are unsure but they have to take a stand and take action or not".
Image: Supplied

An anecdote from your neighbour's cousin is not equal to sound scientific research based on a sample of millions of people. And if something has been shared thousands of times on a digital platform it doesn't mean it's true.

This is what exhausted clinicians - increasingly battling to save the lives of those who refused a Covid-19 vaccination - wish the public understood.

Professor Wolfgang Preiser, a virologist at the University of Stellenbosch, told the Sunday Times this week that those who were still hesitant about vaccines were being pulled by myth-spreading anti-vaxxers in the opposite direction to data-based science.

"The [anti-vaxxers] are more vocal and aggressive and thus capture attention," he said. False information easily balloons on social media, while "algorithms designed to maximise profit" also play a huge role by chasing clicks regardless of whether "utter nonsense" was being disseminated as a result.

"The problem is, to debunk one claim, however unfounded, takes effort and time if one wants to do it properly and precisely. It takes much less time to come up with another piece of nonsense, and so on."

This week, an international group of researchers led by Stellenbosch University reported on the ScienceDirect website that the main drivers of vaccine hesitancy in Cape Town were "religion and internet-sourced misinformation".

The study involved interviews with 19 point-of-care vaccinators at 16 health-care facilities. Lead author Elizabeth Oduwole and her team did their field work late in 2019 when the "novel coronavirus" was brewing in Wuhan, China, and had no idea how relevant their research was about to become.

Religion was the most common reason cited for hesitancy and was identified in Christian and Islamic families.

Misinformation on social media was the second-biggest factor, while others included fear of pain caused by an injection, fear of adverse effects, and the belief that it's better to wait for natural immunity to develop.

Oduwole said all the vaccinators in the study said primary caregivers who consulted internet sources admitted that the information they accessed either supported or instigated a vaccine-hesitant attitude. None reported a client who came for vaccination based on internet-sourced information.

"There are internet sources with correct, scientifically backed information about vaccines, promoting good vaccination practices, but their impact seems minimal compared to those promoting anti-vaccination sentiments," said Oduwole.

Nikki Bush, a motivational speaker and author who has just published her book, Future-proof Yourself, told the Sunday Times this week that, "human beings always need to justify their decisions and their point of view to make themselves feel ... more confident, especially at times when they don't really know or are unsure but they have to take a stand and take action or not".

This results in people "constantly justifying their decisions and beliefs to themselves and others" until it "may come across as pushy".

So where to from here?

81,187 - Official Covid-19 death toll by Friday.

244,846 - Estimated 'excess deaths' by August 21, according to the  SA Medical Research council. 

0 - Deaths as a result of vaccinations. 

According to a paper published this month in science journal Nature, "the reasons for Covid-19 vaccine acceptance and hesitancy remain complex".

"As new SARS-CoV-2 variants emerge, adding further complexity, and new vaccines come to the market, it will be important to maintain a delicate balance in communicating what is known and acknowledging the uncertainties that remain."

According to the paper, researchers and pharmaceutical manufacturers should be "as forthcoming as possible, with research data on vaccines made readily available".

Also, "governments should be transparent about their response programmes to Covid-19, vaccine availability, and how key decisions are being made".

According to Western Cape health MEC Nomafrench Mbombo, sometimes all it takes to shift attitudes is a conversation with a community or its leaders.

"I have been criss-crossing the province to promote vaccine acceptance. I recently found myself in the Central Karoo in Leeu Gamka," she said. "Vaccine hesitancy was high there. When I tried to find out why, I discovered that the community had been told by a leader that vaccines are associated with the devil. But when we engage further, we are able to explain and people understand."

Vaccination numbers rose sharply this week as 18- to 34-year-olds became eligible.

Almost 1.4-million vaccinations were administered between Monday and Friday, 34% higher than a week earlier.

Briefing the media on Friday, health minister Joe Phaahla said more than 560,000 young adults had registered for vaccination on the first day they were eligible, Friday August 20.

"The response of the young people has been quite overwhelming," he said.

Sources: Professor Graeme Meintjies, infectious diseases physician and deputy head of the department of medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital, Dr Jantjie Taljaard, infectious diseases physician at Tygerberg Hospital, and Dr Lisa Frigati, paediatric infectious diseases physician specialist at Tygerberg Hospital, published studies.
Sources: Professor Graeme Meintjies, infectious diseases physician and deputy head of the department of medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital, Dr Jantjie Taljaard, infectious diseases physician at Tygerberg Hospital, and Dr Lisa Frigati, paediatric infectious diseases physician specialist at Tygerberg Hospital, published studies.
Image: Nolo Moima

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