Vaccine hesitancy still a big challenge in the fight against Covid-19

Aashi Bagaria Mumbai | Updated on June 30, 2021

Government has given insufficient attention to the demand-side of the vaccine

Mamta Valamiki, a house help in Mumbai, has still not taken the Covid-19 vaccines. It's not because she does not have access to the vaccine but due to a fear of possible risk to her health after taking the shot. “Why do I need to take the vaccine when I’m not even sick?” she asks.

Pratibha Kaduskar, another domestic worker in several Mumbai households says she is scared of getting vaccinated. “My bosses say that I need to get vaccinated if I am to work at their homes, so I have no other option since I need the work. The pandemic got very difficult financially, and even though I’m scared of getting vaccinated, it’s something I need to do.”

Valmiki and Kaduskar are just two examples of many such individuals who have vaccine hesitancy across the country. A recent report by Ideas for India platform emphasized on the insufficient attention given to the demand-side of the vaccine by the government. Essentially, the government ramped up the production of large number of vaccines for the population of India, but did not pay heed to problems with regards to demand of vaccines due to hesitancy. The report said that 29 per cent of individuals surveyed showed vaccine hesitancy.

Santanu Pramanik, Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, NCAER-National Data Innovation Centre and one of the authors for this report says, “The more we vaccinate, the more we reduce the risk of Covid-infection, hospitalisation, Covid-related death, and transmission of the virus. Based on our findings, it is evident that Covid-19 vaccination coverage is associated with vaccine hesitancy at least in some States like Tamil Nadu, Punjab, and Andhra Pradesh. Hence, if proper communication strategies are not developed to mitigate vaccine hesitancy, the pandemic is likely to be prolonged.”

Need for vaccine

The second wave of Covid-19 spread rampantly throughout the country, serving sky high mortality rates and fear among citizens. The government has sanctioned the local vaccine Covaxin, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine known in India as Covishield, and recently, the Russian Sputnik V vaccine to curb the ever-growing problems as soon as possible. “With the virus being so unpredictable, it’s important that everybody get the vaccine, to at least get some form of protection, and rule out death as a risk of the virus,” says Dr. Sarita Mittal, the Chief Medical Officer at a Delhi Municipal Corporation Hospital, which has been a vaccination center since January.

Building herd immunity is the key to improving the situation, yet many find themselves not getting vaccinated. “A huge reason for this is illiteracy in the country. I have seen so many of the underprivileged refusing to take the vaccine as they fear the flu like symptoms that occur. Religion has also played a factor in building myths about the vaccine, and caused refusal of getting vaccinated,” adds Mittal.

Many are irrationally fearful of taking the vaccine, like Mamta, who adds “If I get vaccinated, I will fall sick again and will be put in a hospital. I’m too scared to get vaccinated, so I’m just waiting it out.”

Vaccine complications

Even educated people from the affluent class are hesitant. “I am not anti-vaccine; I just think there isn’t enough data with me to be comfortable with getting vaccinated. I know a couple of cases that have gone wrong, the vaccine isn’t our savior,” says a South Mumbai resident.

Activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan recently tweeted that he has not taken any vaccine, nor he intends to do so. “I am not anti-vaccine per se. But I believe it is irresponsible to promote universal vaccination of experimental & untested vaccines especially to young & Covid recovered,” he said.

While this may seem logical, Dr. Mittal disagrees, “Most of the cases you see going wrong are due to complications because of the patient’s past medical history. These are rare cases that are almost always avoided as we only vaccinate those after we have looked at their past history. I have never personally seen a vaccination complication.”

The Ideas for India report concludes that vaccine efficacy is the key to any vaccine approval process. Transparent and accurate information about the vaccine(s) will help alleviate apprehensions and will encourage uptake among the public.

“Building a robust AEFI (Adverse Events Following Immunization) surveillance system, transparency in reporting, timely investigation can help in building trust, reduce hesitancy, and improve vaccination coverage,” says Pramanik.

Published on June 30, 2021

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