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Guyana embarks on targeted campaign to counter vaccine hesitancy

Last Updated on Monday, 28 February 2022, 14:29 by Denis Chabrol

Guyana, with international assistance, on Monday launched a campaign to counter pockets of hesitancy in taking COVID-19 vaccines because the fight against the potentially deadly virus is not over.

Health workers are being trained by providing information and knowledge about the vaccines so that they could return to communities and tackle vaccine misinformation among those who are reluctant to take a jab.

The Health Minister said local research on vaccine hesitancy shows that many persons were taking medical advice from Facebook and other Social Media platforms. “Very often what is being spread there is a lot of misinformation,” he said, adding that was driving hesitancy. He said that community and religious leaders have to be targeted to “understand this message” of vaccination so that they could convince others. According to Dr. Anthony, after spending millions of dollars and meeting for hours with communities and community leaders, in the end they said they do not need vaccines.

He said the vaccination rates were extremely low in Regions 1, 2, 8 and 10.

Latest official statistics show that 432,024 doses or 84.2 percent of adults have received a first dose and 327,775 doses or 63.9 percent have received two jabs, but the Health Minister said they indicate that “there is is still a lot of people that we need to reach” amounting to 80,959 persons who must get a first dose and 185,208 persons who are yet to take a second dose.

Dr. Anthony said some parents, who have been vaccinated, are not encouraging their children to do likewise. “Now one of the big challenges that we are having with this particular group is that even if the older children are interested in getting their vaccines, we are not able to administer that vaccine because we require parental permission and if the parents do not give that permission, then we would not administer the vaccine and we have been talking about this repeatedly, we have been trying to reach out to parents, trying to talk to people about this but again we are having these difficulties,” he said. In the 12 to 17 age group, 33,529 doses or 46 percent of that age group have been vaccinated which means there are 39,405 persons in that category who require a first dose.

While a number of Guyanese believe that the COVID pandemic is over,  the Health Minister said people are being tested positive and are hospitalised with most of them unvaccinated and have an underlying illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension and heart ailments. Currently, there are 558 cases of which 40 are hospitalised including eight who are receiving intensive care. Against that background and at the risk of having long COVID, he stressed that vaccines could save lives and protect people in the short and long-term.

In terms of second dose, the Health Ministry has vaccinated 24,202 persons or 33.2 percent of that age cohort which means 48,732 persons who require second dose. “I use these numbers to point out that, while I think there is a lot of complacency now in terms of vaccination that we still have room for improvement especially with our first and second dose vaccines and with our booster shot and with booster shots,” the Health Minister said.

Guyana Representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Nicholas Pron told the opening session credited health workers with getting more than 50 percent of Guyanese vaccinated through their “tireless efforts” and returning to normalcy. He said the time has come to do more to reach vaccine-hesitant persons and those who have questions and provide and answers in order to “turn vaccines into vaccinations”. “But the job is not ye done. There are still persons who are hesitant about getting vaccinated and misinformation, unfortunately, about the vaccines continues to stymie efforts to reach herd immunity,” he said.

United States Ambassador to Guyana, Sarah-Ann Lynch said her government was now addressing the new phase of the pandemic by holding virtual session for healthcare workers for Regions Three and 10, provided information booths, created culturally appropriate messages, and conducted sit-paint-gaff sessions with teachers to answer their questions and provide clear answers and provide psychosocial support. At the Watooka Day Primary School one such session was held resulting in 72 percent of the unvaccinated participants in the end deciding to take a vaccine. The US Peace Corps, she added, was also involved in combatting vaccine hesitancy. “We understand that addressing vaccine concerns is not only the work of the Ministry of Health for its only through collaborative multi-sectoral efforts that we can achieve success,” he said.

The US has so far donated 300,000 Pfizer vaccines, including those through the COVAX mechanism as well as provided 10 vaccination tents,  ultra-low temperature freezers, and personal protective equipment. The Ambassador said the US also provided an additional US$1 million in support. In all the American government has provided more than US$7 million in COVID funding to the Eastern and Southern Caribbean.