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March 31, 2021

Pakistan’s Covid-19 challenge: Busting vaccine myths

Karachi

March 31, 2021

100-year-old Israel Ahmed Meenai gets the coronavirus vaccine. Photo: Waqar Bhatti

The extent to which Pakistanis are reluctant to get Covid-19 jabs can be gauged from Sindh Health Minister Dr Azra Fazal Pechuho’s recent admonition to none other than the provincial health workers, many of whom aren’t getting themselves vaccinated, with some citing conspiracy theories about the vaccine that are often shared via WhatsApp groups.

Dr Pechuho said in a video released on March 25 that 142,315 healthcare workers were registered in the province for inoculation, but 33,356 of them did not get themselves vaccinated. She warned the healthcare workers who were not getting vaccinated of job termination.

In a country where misinformation has resulted in even front-line workers expressing undue fears over getting themselves inoculated, the unwillingness of the public to get vaccinated must not come as a surprise.

There is nothing new in Pakistanis, including medical practitioners, entertaining doubts about vaccinations against diseases. The country has already globally faced, for decades now, embarrassment on the polio scene.

But adopting the same behaviour in the worst-ever pandemic the world has seen, at least in the contemporary times, will be nothing but tantamount to shooting oneself in the foot.

According to Our World In Data’s dataset, Pakistan had administered only 0.16 vaccine per 100 people until March 14, which was alarmingly lower than even Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Also, Pakistan had administered only 350,000 single doses of the vaccine by March 14, the lowest in the region. Bangladesh had administered 5.14 million doses by March 25, while India had administered 55.5 million.

India’s daily Covid vaccination per 100 people was 0.09 doses by March 25, according to the data available on Our World In Data. Bangladesh had administered 0.06 doses, Turkey 0.18 doses, and Indonesia had administered 0.08 doses. By March 14, Pakistan had administered even lower than 0.01 doses per 100 persons.

In Sindh, only 209,500 people have been vaccinated in almost two months since the roll-out of the vaccine.

Available vaccines

As per the Covid-19 vaccine tracker, approximately 13 vaccines have been approved globally and licensed for general use. Of them, Chinese vaccine Sinopharm is being administered to Pakistanis. The country received 1.5 million doses of the vaccine from China as a gift and later, 55,000 more doses were purchased by the Pakistani government. Recently, China has assured Pakistan of providing it more vaccines before other countries and will donate half a million more doses by the end of March.

Apart from Sinopharm, the World Health Organisation will additionally provide 17 million doses of Oxford’s AstraZeneca vaccine to Pakistan by the end of June, according to Dr Rafiq Khanani, the Infection Control Society of Pakistan.

Talking to The News, Dr Khanani said another Chinese vaccine, CanSino Biologics, whose trials had taken place in Pakistan as well, would soon be available to the private sector. Russian vaccine Sputnik V, he said, had already been imported by the private sector and soon would be available for the people. “There’s a dispute on its price between pharmaceutical companies and the drug regulatory authority,” he added.

The lingering doubts

Bano, a resident of Saadi Town, lives with her mother, 77, and a sister. Despite getting infected with the Covid-19, neither Bano nor her mother and sister are ready to get vaccinated.

“We don’t know what’s in that vaccine, and what side effects it might cause to us,” she said, claiming that her mother was doing fine and would do fine in future as well without the vaccination.

Danish wants the vaccination programme to be conducted properly in the country. “We will see how it goes. What side effects is the vaccination creating?” he said, adding that he wasn’t convinced that the vaccine would have any long-term side effects.

A resident of Surjani Town, Muhammad Furqan, 33, believes in all superstitions related to the virus. “We are still not sure if the pandemic is real, or some sort of conspiracy,” he said. “How can we believe in its vaccination?”

Furqan believes in the conspiracy theory that the pandemic and then its vaccination are a greater plan to keep a track of all humans on this planet. “People say that this vaccine can make you impotent for life.”

Myth-busting

The most common myths rife on social media regarding that Covid-19 vaccination are that it can make people impotent, change their sexuality and that it comes with a chip which could trace people, among others.

Rubbishing all these myths, Dr Khanani said they had zero per cent reality. No chip, he pointed out, could be inserted in the human body through a liquid form of vaccine. As for impotency, he said these vaccinations were being administered all over the world. “Why would Americans, British and Chinese administer their population with a vaccine which can potentially make them impotent?” he asked.

Pakistan Medical Association General Secretary Dr Qaiser Sajjad believes that the attitude of the government has made the pandemic a non-serious issue for the public. No one in government meetings, he laments, wears makes. “Even in the Senate elections recently, no one was seen wearing a mask,” he points out and asks how the public would take the virus and vaccination seriously if this is the attitude of their leaders.

What doubled the misconceptions regarding the vaccine is Prime Minister Imran Khan getting infected with Covid-19 the day after getting the first dose of a vaccine.

“The prime minister was already infected. He even had minor symptoms, but his doctors didn’t wait for the incubation period of the virus,” Dr Sajjad said, explaining that the vaccination was for the prevention, not for the cure. “There’s no definite cure or treatment of the virus,” he explained.

Some people are also hesitant to get themselves vaccinated due to religious misconceptions. To remove such misconceptions, the Dar-ul-Ifta Pakistan has declared the use of vaccination against Covid-19 ‘legal’ and ‘permissible’ according to the Islamic Shariah.

Side effects

Dr Faisal Mahmood, the head of the infectious diseases department at the Aga Khan University Hospital, Karachi, is of the opinion that the biggest concern about the vaccination is of safety and side effects along with distrust of the system. “People are concerned that if they’re cardiac or diabetic patients, or if a woman is pregnant, what side effects the vaccine might cause,” he said, adding that the vaccine had been administered to millions of people across the globe with hardly any side effects.

For people with blood pressure, cardiac issues, or cancer, the vaccination is very necessary as they are the most vulnerable segment to the virus, he said, adding that as for pregnancy, it could be tricky, but globally no complication has been observed in this regard. He advised the pregnant women to consult doctors before vaccination.

Don’t wait

Vaccination will be most beneficial if more people are inoculated in less time as that is how life can return to normalcy.

For those who are comparing the efficacy of different vaccines and waiting for the better one, Dr Mahmood said, “People need to understand that the efficacy of [different] Covid-19 vaccines cannot be compared.” He stressed one should get whatever vaccine was available and called the current availability of vaccines in Pakistan a golden chance for Pakistanis as vaccines were short globally.

Dr Khanani and Dr Mahmood consider the public sector vaccines more reliable and advised the people to get themselves registered as soon as possible. In the government-to-government trade and the vaccination handed over directly by the World Health Organisation to the government, Dr Khanani said there was no third party involved and it made the vaccines very safe.

International isolation

Countries like the United Kingdom and Israel, according to Dr Khanani, have largely controlled the contagiousness of the virus through massive vaccination programmes. With almost 40 per cent of the population vaccinated in England, he said, the daily average deaths of 2,000 had dropped to hardly 18 and the same was the case in Israel.

When asked about the possible repercussions if Pakistanis refused to get vaccinated, international relations expert Dr Huma Baqai said soon vaccination against Covid-19 would be a prerequisite condition for international travel and people would have to get vaccinated if they needed to travel abroad.

Meanwhile, security analyst Ikram Sehgal believes that because of Pakistan’s strategic importance due to the Gwadar port and other reasons, the first world countries will make all

their efforts to ensure that the people of Pakistan are vaccinated.

How to get registered?

Currently, the Pakistan government is offering the Sinopharm vaccine to the elderly population of the country.

In order to get themselves registered for vaccination, citizens between the ages of 60 and 69 can message their CNIC numbers without space and dashes to 1166 from any mobile number. They can also register through nims.nadra.gov.pk. Information about the vaccine centre and other relevant matters is communicated through an SMS.

For citizens of 70 years and above, the registration process is similar. However, after getting the pin code, they can walk in to the nearest vaccination centre and get themselves vaccinated.