The nation’s quest to defeat the deadly Coronavirus pandemic by inoculating about 20 million people is under threat, as fake news and misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines persist. The arrival of the vaccines in Ghana last month signaled the beginning of a possible return to normal.
But with social media getting flooded with conspiracy theories about the jabs, the chances of achieving the ambitious target of building herd immunity by the end of the year is fizzling out. But do the Covid-19 vaccines really alter your DNA? Do they cause physical harm to your body? Are they signs of the antichrist? These and more questions were what I set out to find in this piece.
The Covid-19 has affected the global economy and brought healthcare systems to the brink of collapse. The efforts to stop the spread of Covid-19 has received unparalleled support for governments and rich philanthropists all over the world.
In Ghana, infections continue to rise as scepticism, and myths about vaccinations dominate a lot of public discourse. Sixty-four-year-old Mr Sackey was a Covid-19 sceptic. At least, until he contracted the virus. He spent three weeks on a ventilator in a Covid-19 ICU.
‘We know we were supposed to obey the protocols, but we weren’t. Man has to enjoy small. Drink some bear, chew some meat’, he said while recuperating in the ICU.
There are many more Mr. Sackey’s, and people like him helped the spread of the virus last year. With Accra being an epicenter of Covid 19 in Ghana, health workers in the regional hospital have been very busy managing cases and caring for the seriously ill.
I have come to the Greater Accra Regional Hospital where Ghana’s first two cases were admitted and treated. Dr. Emmanuel Ahiable is head of the covid-19 response team here.
‘We were all very anxious when the country announced its first two cases. In fact we were supposed to have a simulation exercise when the cases were announced. So when the ambulance arrived on the premises we were all looking at each other’s face, asking who was going to receive the patient’, he revealed.
As knowledge about managing the virus improved across the world, the situation in Ghana also improved. Only a more transmissible and deadly strain, B1-1-7, which was first observed in the UK, will take over as the dominant variant in the country, putting pressure on the country’s already overstretched facilities.
“Clearly, what accounted for the surge in December was lack of adherence to the protocols and the new strain,” he noted.
Even before the health facilities felt the real pinch of the second wave, a new dimension of the virus was emerging. Post-Covid complications.
“We call it post-Covid complications. There are people who got Covid-19 and recovered. They went home and later came back with complications in the lung and other places. People have actually survived Covid-19 but died from post-covid complications,” he stressed.
One of such people who suffered the post-covid complications is Member of Parliament for Adaklu Constituency in the Volta Region, Governs Kwame Agbodza.
“So the night I was discharged, I went home and felt like using the bathroom. But I couldn’t move my body. For two weeks, I couldn’t do anything without someone helping me or me using crutches,” he disclosed to me.
This was indeed worrying. But by this time, activity on the international stage gave hope of what was almost impossible a year ago. A raft of working coronavirus vaccine, produced in a record eight month period, beating close to every prediction of when the vaccines were to be available.
As the production of the vaccines in commercial quantities kicked in, the next thing was how to ensure equitable distribution of the drug among all countries in the world regardless of their wealth.
On February 24, 2021 – exactly a year and four days after that consultative meeting on funding for Covid-19 vaccine development held in Geneva, Ghana took delivery of 600,000 free doses of the Indian-made AstraZeneca Vaccines; making it the first country in the world to receive the jabs under the COVAX facility.
The vaccination campaign was ready to take off. The President will back this by being the first person to receive the shots in the country together with his wife. The vice president and his wife, former President Mahama and his wife, Asantehene Otumfuor Osei Tutu II, members of council of state, clergy, senior media practitioners and a host of other dignitaries.
The goal for this public show? To convince people that the jabs were safe. Did this succeed?
“I am not ready to take the vaccine’, one man said. ‘We have been told that they [Europeans] have an agenda to depopulate Africa. What if this is the way by which they have decided to do that,” another man said.
Soon the vaccines were deployed for the first of the inoculation campaign, with priority for health and security personnel, people aged above 60, media practitioners among a few others in parts of the Greater Accra, Ashanti and Central Regions. Opinions are divided on the safety of the vaccines. Several conspiracy theories had already gone ahead of the rollout, convincing people not to receive the jabs. Theories about the vaccines gained prominence on social media and eventually entered the church. Pastor Chris Oyakhilome is a respected preacher with millions of followers.
“By the way, let me tell you. If you are a preacher and you’re going around supervising people to obey these protocols, you’re not a Christian. You never were,” he said out furiously in one of his sermons streamed on the internet.
He talks about how Covid-19 vaccines and masks actually usher in the “mark of the beast,” a reference to an apocalyptic passage from the Book of Revelation that suggests that the Antichrist will test Christians by asking them to put a mark on their bodies. But the founder and leader of the Action Chapel, Archbishop Nicholas Duncan Williams, has a different opinion.
“People keep sending me conspiracy theories and lies about the jabs. This is not the first vaccine. We take polio, yellow fever and the rest. Why don’t all these theories arise when we are taking those?” he quizzed.
He further stressed that “I have faith, but taking the vaccine is also faith, and it’s also wisdom,” he stated in one of his church services also.
Taylor is a member of Christ Embassy.
“Everybody in the church is allowed to decide for himself. But personally, I don’t believe in coronavirus and I don’t believe in any vaccines also. I have realized that the composition of this particular vaccine contains MRNA which has the tendencies of altering your DNA,” he alleged.
As the anti-vaccine theories gain popularity on social media, there have been conscious efforts from other churches to dispel misinformation. The church of Pentecost in a press release on Sunday, February 21, 2021 encouraged members to get vaccinated, stressing religion and science are not necessarily in conflict.
But there are some others whose skepticism fall out of religious beliefs.
“I believe this who Corona thing is an attempt by some Tech giants to really program the world to their advantage. You know since the virus broke, we have had to migrate online with a lot of our meetings and so on. Who benefits from those?” he asked
I have come to Chorkor, a community which lies some 200 meters from the coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s almost midday and at the food joint, these people are having another discussion about vaccines. Their utterances suggest that they may not have heard much about the jabs.
‘We’ve been told that we have to take painkillers before going to take the Covid-19 vaccine because of headaches the jabs come with. But we wonder why one would have headaches rather after taking the shot. So we are all scared. Is it not supposed to be a medicine? Some also say people die after taking the shots. For me, I won’t take the vaccine’, one woman said.
With close to 90,000 confirmed cases of the virus and more than 700 deaths in Ghana, the attainment of head immunity depends on the successful inoculation of about 20 million people in the country. The achievement of this ambitious target is tied to the confidence people had in the jabs. High profile personalities taking the shots on live TV was not enough.
About a kilometer east of the Chorkor township is another coastal community, Korle-ena. The reactions to the vaccines are very interesting.
“We are not taking any jabs here. I am going to call my children’s school in the central region. They should not attempt to give them any shots otherwise there’ll be trouble. Because we heard that some people were vaccinated in Ivory Coast, and their eyeballs began to roll. You know, coronavirus is scared of me and in fact, it’s scared of most Ghanaians. It’s the wicked big men who are contracting the virus,” one fisherman told me.
Vaccine hesitancy is not new. Reference is made to the infamous Cutter Incident in America which involved polio vaccines in 1955. Even though approval for Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was not in a record 8 months like Covid-19 vaccines, licenses were hurriedly granted to several drug companies, including Cutter Laboratories, to make the vaccine, the very day news broke that clinical trials after close to four years of research were successful. About 165,000 doses of Cutter’s shots went out.
Not only did some people injected with the tainted vaccine get sick, but some who got the vaccine went on to infect family members and neighbors. The US government ordered the Cutter vaccine to be withdrawn on April 27. But damage had already been done. The vaccine had paralyzed or killed twenty-five children. So yes, people are probably right to be apprehensive given that these vaccines were produced hurriedly. But what vaccines do we have and what does the science say?
Immunologist with WACCBIP, Dr. Yaw Bediako explains that vaccines are cost and benefits. One must consider the cost of not getting vaccinated in the face of a deadly virus and weigh it against the cost of getting vaccinated and falling sick for a few days.
Is efficacy enough?
Ghana’s Food and Drugs Authority gave approval for two vaccines to be used in Ghana under an Emergency Use Authorization. The Indian-made Astrazeneca (Covishield) and Russia’s Sputnik V. CEO of the FDA, Mimi Delese Darko, at a public sensitization forum ahead of the roll out of the country’s vaccination campaign emphasized that, though approvals were given hurriedly, no safety steps were skipped.
But how does the absence of clinical trials of the vaccines in Ghana affect vaccines?
Dr Yaw Bediako answers this question by saying, “No clinical trials were done for paracetamol in Ghana but we are confident in the drug and continue consuming it. I understand the need for clinical trials, especially in Ghana. But Safety Trials don’t necessarily need to be done everywhere. Once it’s done on humans elsewhere and we are sure it’s safe there, we don’t need to worry about safety trials of the drug before use among our population.”
Data from the Ghana Health Service shows that 1,050 people out of a total of 450,000 who had been vaccinated as of March 16, 2021, showed side effects which are mostly fevers, headaches, and muscle pains. But news of blood clotting among a few people who take the AstraZeneca jabs is taking center stage.
One vaccine sceptic said, “we have heard the news of how even some European countries are suspending the use of the drug in their countries because of blood clotting. So what are the side effects that we have here too? Is it that we are not finding out or what? What if the vaccine affects your [fertitlity]? How does one ascertain that immediately?”
Dr Yaw Bediako’s answer is that the European countries suspending the use of the AstraZeneca drug were only hurting their own immunization campaigns. He stressed that there was no direct causality between blood clotting and the vaccines.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the most sophisticated research conducted by local scientist is the Genome sequencing of the virus to know more about the virus.
But with a vicious virus like Covid-19 spreading quickly health authorities are thinking, what could be the alternative to vaccines we have in their current state?
‘There are two options. Either natural herd immunity which means we need to prepare for more deaths. Or the artificial one which comes with the vaccines. So I keep on asking what are the alternatives?’, he asked.
In Ghana, people who take Covid-19 vaccines are issued cards as a proof vaccination. For many vaccine skeptics, this is the cue of the mark of the beast. They predict that soon, people will be forced to show their covid-19 vaccination cards before they can access public services or even travel.
Much as this assumption is false, the Covid-19 Passports may become mandatory. This is because, countries want to confirm that travellers who are entering their space are not carrying the virus. In any case, the Ghana Health Service issues about 2,000 Yellow Cards every week. These are mostly to people traveling out of the country. So passports on the back of vaccinations are not new.
It cannot be overemphasized that the success of the inoculation is hinged on head immunity.
But vaccine hesitancy stands in the way of achieving this head immunity. Section 22 of the Public Health Act 2012 Act 851 reads ‘the Minister may by executive instrument, generally or with reference to a particular district, area, or place or with respect to a particular class or classes of persons, order the persons to whom the instrument applies who do not produce satisfactory evidence of successful vaccination, to be vaccinated by a public vaccinator, unless in the opinion of the public vaccinator the vaccination would be injurious to health’. Will this option of compulsion be considered?
Generally, health authorities are focused on convincing people to receive the shots rather than compelling them to. Several strategies have been employed to see this through.
With every passing day that people refuse to take the vaccines the situation gets worse. The WHO for the Africa region had in the middle of March predicted the possible discovery of new strains of the virus within the continent, as the Easter festivities beckon.
With 106 new cases and 734 deaths, an Immunologist at the West Africa Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACBIP), Dr Yaw Bediako insists that social gatherings should be strictly prohibited.
Director of Public Health at the Ghana Health Service Dr. Franklin Asiedu Bekoe agrees.
As Ghanaians continue to mobilize against a common enemy, Covid-19, what buffers are being created for future enemies? President Akufo-Addo in his 24th Address to the nation announced the establishment of a task force to look into the possible production of vaccines in the nearest future.
There’s no one watching or listening right now who is older than science and the science of vaccination. So are the disbeliefs and myths about vaccination they outdate all of us. So you are not alone if you doubt or resist vaccination. Your ancestors did…with myths and superstitious arguments that cost them their very lives. Get the jab, we are not safe until everyone is safe.
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