The Complex Web of South African Vaccine Hesitancy

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A review of surveys towards COVID vaccines in South Africa has revealed that there are multiple factors at work, with an underlying scepticism towards vaccines in general that appears to be growing in the very face of the pandemic.

The findings, published in Expert Review of Vaccines, highlight the multi-faceted and unique aspects of vaccine hesitancy in South Africa, such as men being more likely to reject a vaccine.

Vaccine hesitancy is not new; two years before the emergency of COVID the World Health Organization identified it as a top ten threat to health, underscored by outbreaks of preventable diseases such as measles.

A previous review of 126 surveys in 2020 found a global decline of COVID vaccine acceptance from 70% in March to 50% by October. Vaccine hesitancy has been an obstacle in South Africa for a long time: it was a factor in various measles outbreaks from 2003 to 2011, and it became more apparent during the nation-wide school HPV vaccination programme begun in 2014.

The researchers searched for surveys on COVID vaccine hesitancy in South Africa up until 15 March 2021, with sample sizes ranging from 403 to 75 518.

Unlike elsewhere, men are more hesitant
In a survey by Ask Africa, men were more likely to distrust vaccines (39%) than women (26%). Of the women who would refuse, there was a higher percentage who would  However, women were more likely to take the vaccine even if they thought it was unsafe. The authors cautioned that this result should be interpreted with caution; however, Department of Health deputy director Dr Nicholas Crisp also recently pointed this out, suggesting that more recent survey data helped inform his opinion.
Curiously, this is in contrast to other COVID studies and other vaccine studies in general, which indicate that women are more hesitant than men when it comes to vaccines in general. 

Age, race, education, geographical location
Three of the studies found that age may be important, with older adults having less concerns and/or being more accepting of COVID vaccination. 

The COVID-19 Democracy survey found that people 55 or older were more likely to take the vaccine (74%) compared to those 18 to 24 years old (63%).
The same survey found that white adults were the least likely racial group to accept vaccination, with only 56% willing to be vaccinated compared to 69% of black African adults. Education was another factor, with just 59% of tertiary educated people willing to be vaccinated compared to 72% of this who did not complete high school.

Council for Medical Schemes (CMS) survey found that vaccine acceptance was higher (83%) in urban suburban settings compared to other settings (73% and 78%).

Doubts about safety significant
Three rounds of Ipsos survey data showed a huge drop in acceptance from 64% in July/August and 68% in October to 53% in December. Of those not accepting, concern about side effects as a reason rose from 30% in October to 65% in December.

The Ask Afrika survey indicated that stopping the roll-out of the AstraZeneca vaccine early this year reduced both levels of trust in vaccine safety and confidence in the process. 

Of particular concern were several surveys indicating South African antipathy to all vaccines; in the Ipsos surveys, about a quarter refusing COVID vaccines were also opposed to vaccines in general. Thus, this hesitancy to COVID vaccines, the authors suggest, is just the tip of the iceberg of South African vaccine hesitancy.  Indeed, the Africa CDC survey indicated that at least one in five South Africans were less likely to get vaccinated in general than before the pandemic.

More research and targeted messaging needed
Overall, the authors found about a third of the adult South African public is hesitant towards COVID vaccines. Age, race, education, geographic locations and possibly gender all influence the social nature of vaccine acceptance in South Africa.

The authors conclude that responding to vaccine hesitancy, including COVID vaccine hesitancy, requires a better understanding of the often complex and multi-layered issues influencing vaccination views and practices, and tailoring interventions accordingly. Individualistic, decontextualised, and ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches are unlikely to have great success.

Source: Expert Review of Vaccines

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