Survey finds Covid-19 vaccine acceptance, hesitancy a complex problem
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The latest survey on South Africans’ vaccine acceptance and hesitancy paints a picture of a complex situation, not easily explained away by conspiracy theories or influence of social media.
Findings from the fourth round of the Covid-19 Democracy Survey, undertaken by the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in collaboration with the Human Sciences Research Council, show vaccine acceptance increased from 67% to 72% in the latest round of the survey during June/July, time of the peak of the third wave of Covid-19 infections.
While vaccinations are due to open soon to the 18-34-year age group, the survey found younger people were less likely to be accepting of vaccines than older people. The acceptance rate in the 18-24 group stood at 55%, and 66% for those aged 25-35.
The biggest reason given for vaccine acceptance was a desire to protect oneself from serious illness or death, while the biggest explanation given for hesitancy to vaccinate was possible side effects and concerns that the vaccine would not be effective against Covid-19 or its new variants.
Interestingly, religious objections, conspiracy theories, rumours and social media played a relatively insignificant role in vaccine hesitancy.
Politics was shown to have some influence, with those aligned to the ANC showing higher rates of acceptance than those who said they supported the DA, EFF or other parties.
Professor Kate Alexander, Research Chair in Social Change at UJ, said during an online presentation of the data yesterday that while an upward trend in vaccine acceptance was positive, there was “a considerable challenge” in meeting government targets.
In a slide titled “Mind the gap” she demonstrated how acceptance was fairly evenly spread across income groups, but those with medical insurance were more likely to be vaccinated than those without (even though the vaccine does not cost those without insurance), as were those who had access to a motor vehicle.
Describing race as “part of the puzzle”, Alexander’s graphs illustrate that despite the lowest rate of acceptance being among whites (with a vaccine hesitancy of 47%), white adults were more likely to have been vaccinated than black African adults (whose hesitancy rate was 25%).
She said it was clear that access matters, as vaccine acceptance was high in rural areas and townships, yet “we are not getting vaccines to all the people equally”, and she called for a campaign to mobilise young people to get vaccinated.
Professor Carin Runciman, director of the Centre for Social Change, said the most common self-reported explanations from those who said they were willing to vaccinate were to protect self, and to protect society.
The most common explanations for hesitancy overall were side effects (30%), perceived ineffectiveness (24%) and distrust (21%). Runciman highlighted young people’s explanations for hesitancy which included adopting a wait-and-see approach.
“Maybe next year I will take the vaccine,” said one, claiming vaccines had been “rushed, not thoroughly researched”.
In a separate webinar, hosted by the GCIS with the National Press Club, Professor Hannelie Meyer, head of the SA Vaccination and Immunisation Centre at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, addressed the issue of side-effects which may be experienced from a Covid-19 vaccine.
Mild reactions, reported by about 10% of those vaccinated, include headache, muscle ache, chills, tiredness or pain at the injection site but were self-limiting and manageable, she said.
When a vaccinated individual experienced more serious symptoms they should seek medical attention but not assume it was necessarily linked to the vaccination.
She emphasised that vaccines approved for use in South Africa had undergone rigorous testing and were safe; of more than 9 million doses administered, only about 0.02% of people had reported adverse events, and it was important to compare the perceptions of vaccine risk with the “very real risk” of getting Covid-19.
Mafora Matlala of the SA Health Products Regulatory Authority outlined the rigorous process vaccines must go through before approval, and the role of data in assessing safety and efficacy, noting that benefits far outweigh the risks.
She highlighted a Medical Safety app which can be downloaded and assisted to keep the public informed and report adverse events.
Journalist Pontsho Pilane spoke about her experiences gleaned from people she engages with on her show on Motsweding FM, and the need for easily-accessible vaccine information in all languages to quell the hesitancy people have to be vaccinated.
In summing up, Michael Currin, chief director, provincial and local liaison of GCIS, called for a collective and unified effort to amplify correct, scientifically-proven information about vaccines in an effort to meet the target to vaccinate 70% of the adult population.