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Historic vaccine rollout hampered by misinformation?

Covid-19. Red liquid vaccine in glass tubes.. Cases of COVID-19 illustration. Image credit: Ivan Uralsky. vaccine hesitancy concept. Also to illustrate article re: emergency use authorisation. Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine. Also used in coverage of vaccine hoarding. Vaccination campaign concept. Cost of COVID-19 vaccine concept. vaccine shipments concept.
Image credit: Ivan Uralsky / 123rf

India’s historic vaccine rollout seeking to inoculate its 1.3 billion+ population against the novel coronavirus launched last Saturday. However, there is some reluctance among those prioritised to receive the jab in the first phase. 

Rollout of India’s vaccination campaign against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) – the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 – commenced on January 16th. A group of frontline workers belonging to the healthcare and sanitation sectors became the first people in India to receive a dose. 

The large-scale vaccine rollout seeks to inoculate 300 million in the next few months. This first phase prioritises frontline workers, those over fifty and those with underlying conditions. However, a significant proportion of people in India did not receive the jab despite being invited to do so.

On the first day, almost one-third of 300,000 people invited for a shot on the opening day of the vaccine rollout did not arrive to receive their vaccination, Firstpost reports. A Guardian report found that “on the first day of India’s vaccine drive on Saturday, more than 200,000 vaccinations were given – the highest one-day total of any country – but nonetheless fell short of the nationwide government targets by over 100,000. By Tuesday evening, the government said 631,417 people had been vaccinated, far below the expected figure.”

The report added “the low turnout was attributed to a nervousness about safety among the healthcare workers who were first in line to receive the vaccine, as well as technical difficulties with the app designed to alert people to their vaccine appointments.” As of Wednesday, January 20th, the Guardian report says India has registered a turnout of 64 percent for the jab with states such as Punjab and Tamil Nadu registering turnout of just 23 percent and 22 percent respectively.

As well as the issues identified in the Guardian report, many are pointing the finger at misinformation. “These are initial days and we understand people are waiting to see how the procedure pans out,” said Suneela Garg, a member of the coronavirus task force for New Delhi, quoted in the Firstpost report. “These numbers will go up as confidence is strengthened. And for that, we have to tackle misinformation.”

Misinformation has indeed been a concern throughout the pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO), among other bodies, have warned of an infodemic running in parallel to the outbreak of a disease that has claimed more than two million lives worldwide. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been vocal on the subject, urging people not to believe rumours about vaccines. But the spread of misinformation is having an effect and officials and other public figures are working hard to counter vaccine hesitancy and boost confidence.

“From the very beginning, we have warned people not to be worried about this misinformation that is being spread,” said Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan. He has altered his Twitter banner to read “vaccines work: stay informed, stay safe.” A number of Bollywood luminaries have urged vaccine confidence.

“Vaccine hesitancy is there in the whole world for various vaccines,” said Dr V. K. Paul, a member of government think tank Niti Aayog. “Anxiety is normal but the data of the vaccines that have been approved in India have shown that these are safe. If healthcare and frontline workers are given an opportunity to take the vaccines, they should not refuse. After taking these vaccines, these people can be safe and keep others safe.” 

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