Vaccine hesitancy in Pakistan heightens risk of COVID-19 resurgence

Pakistan’s success at managing the coronavirus pandemic – with relatively low rates of severe disease and death – and distrust of government-led and foreign-funded public health initiatives has driven vaccine hesitancy, which could put the country’s fragile gains against COVID-19 at risk, say experts and officials.

Since the pandemic began, Pakistan, a country of 220 million people, has registered more than 586,000 cases of the virus, with 13,128 deaths, as per government data.

Its current case-fatality rate of 2.2 percent is comparable to countries such as France and Canada – and is slightly higher than the United States – but is extremely low when its very low rate of testing is accounted for.

Pakistan conducts 0.18 tests per 1,000 people, compared with 4.62 per 1,000 in France or 2.76 per 1,000 in the US, as per government data.

In February, the country opened up vaccinations for hundreds of thousands of front-line healthcare workers across the country, with the arrival of more than 500,000 doses of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine donated by the Chinese government.

Almost immediately, however, the campaign hit a snag.

“Even in the healthcare community, people thought that taking the vaccine might be harmful,” says a senior health official involved in vaccination efforts in Sindh province, which saw some of the worst of Pakistan’s COVID-19 pandemic.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

While thousands of healthcare workers registered themselves for the vaccine, initial rates of vaccination were slow, with doctors saying they were concerned about possible side-effects or reactions to the vaccine.

In the first two weeks after vaccinations began, only 32,582 front-line healthcare workers in Sindh, out of an eligible 78,000, had gotten their first jab of the vaccine, as per government data. In other provinces, the situation was even worse.

“Initially, people did not get vaccinated and a lot of people were concerned about reactions [and side-effects],” says Dr Ahmed Zeb, a physician in the northwestern city of Peshawar, which saw hospital intensive care units overflowing in June, during Pakistan’s first peak of coronavirus cases.

Dr Faisal Sultan, Pakistan’s health minister, says the hesitancy has been driven by healthcare workers “over-analysing the data”.

“That is a hazard in today’s world, with a number of vaccines available and people looking at all the pros and cons and analysing efficacies, and sometimes losing sight of the fact that for the individual the most important number to remember is the protection against severe disease,” he told Al Jazeera.

“And all the licenced vaccines protect against severe disease in the 90 percent [range].”

So far, a month after vaccinations began, Pakistan has only administered 197,000 doses of the vaccine, or 0.09 vaccinations per 100 members of the population, putting it almost dead last in countries where vaccination data is available, according to the Our World In Data dataset.

Moreover, as the vaccination programme moves towards getting senior citizens their jabs, the lack of public buy-in is clear.

Only 240,000 out of an estimated eight million citizens over the age of 65, or three percent, have so far registered to receive the vaccine in the next phase, according to government data. (Aljazeera)


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