Overcoming myths about the COVID-19 vaccine

COVID-19 vaccines rollout in Malawi

By Arnold Munthali
Senior Health Surveillance Assistant (SHSA) Andrew Mbingwani prepares to give COVID-19 vaccine dose to a client at Chikande Health centre in Ntcheu
UNICEF Malawi/2021/Gumulira
09 July 2021

Austin village is an unremarkable place. Lying deep on the eastern side of Ntcheu district in the area of Traditional Authority (T/A) Makwangala (some 50km away from the district headquarters), the village bears a feeling of contentment that is inviting.

An earth road cuts straight through the village as if determined to delve into its inner secrets and beauties. Occasionally, a motor vehicle lumbers past, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake that hangs in the air for what seems an eternity.

Chikande Health Centre, a brick-and-mortar affair, sits imposingly on the western side of the road like an overlord of the village.

The health centre and the village it serves are sources of heart-warming, yet disturbing, tales about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Take the case of Agnes Samuel, for instance, a 65-year-old widowed subsistence farmer whose house is a stone's throw away from the health centre. Life in Austin village was one of contentment until the coronavirus tore it apart.

By March 2021, Malawi had experienced two waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, with fatalities passing the 1,000 marks. The effect on the nation has been profound, with notable disruptions to education, delivery of health services, and economic activities, among others.

As a beneficiary country of the global Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A), Malawi in April 2021 received 360,000 doses of vaccines under the COVAX Facility — a partnership between CEPI, Gavi, UNICEF, and WHO — for priority groups totaling 3.8m people or about 20% of the country’s population.

With support from the SDG Acceleration Fund, UNICEF Malawi is implementing the ‘Malawi National COVID-19 Vaccine Programme Support’ which aims to provide technical and logistical assistance and to support vaccine deployment and national COVID-19 response monitoring activities between April 2021 and April 2022.

65-year-old Agnes Samuel gets her vaccine at Chikande Health centre in Ntcheu. Samuel will be due to receive the second dose of the vaccine
UNICEF Malawi/2021/Gumulira
65-year-old Agnes Samuel gets her vaccine at Chikande Health centre in Ntcheu. Samuel will be due to receive the second dose of the vaccine

Chikande Health Centre was one of the centres administering the vaccine, but despite the short distance to the clinic, Agnes was initially reluctant to get the vaccine in the first phase of vaccinations.

"I have an underlying heart condition and I had heard that people with my condition and of my age were at greater risk from the disease,” she says.

Moreover, she was discouraged from getting vaccinated by her two children.

“I was cautioned I would die if I got the jab because the vaccine is dangerous. But COVID-19 doesn’t spare the old or the young,” Agnes explains.

Her response was stoic, telling her detractors that death is inevitable. So, when the second phase of the vaccinations was rolled out across the district, Agnes made for the clinic and was one of the first to get vaccinated on May 24.

“A day after I got the jab, I felt feverish and so I took a painkiller,” she says.

Her fever was enough to feed into the fears her children and other detractors, but she has pulled through, saying, “I am far much better right now.”

Her situation was by no means unique, with Samson Senzo Salim, 38, chairperson of Austin Village Development Committee, also sharing similar tales of doom and gloom about the vaccine.

“What I read on social media was scary, about blood clotting if one got the vaccine, dying or even becoming sterile. The Ministry of Health tried to give us the correct information, but we paid more attention to the messages we read on social media, particularly WhatsApp, which was full of scary outcomes,” Salim explains.

Something kept nagging at the back of his mind, however. He was not blind to the realities of COVID-19 and he began to wonder if something was amiss from what he had curated from social media. Salim eventually got vaccinated on 16 June 2021.

“I did my own research about the vaccine. Coupled with the information I got from the government and some organisations, I decided to get vaccinated to protect myself,” he explains.

Gibson Chikhasu Zulu, a teacher at Chikande Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) receives his vaccine at Chikande Health Centre
UNICEF Malawi/2021/Gumulira
Gibson Chikhasu Zulu, a teacher at Chikande Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) receives his vaccine at Chikande Health Centre

Not everyone was sceptical about the vaccine, however. Gibson Chikhasu Zulu is a 52-year-old teacher at Chikande Community Day Secondary School, who took his first jab on April 8 and his second on 17 June 2021.

Chikande CDSS has nine teachers, but not all teachers shared his enthusiasm for the vaccine.

“I’m the only teacher who got vaccinated. The others didn’t get the vaccine because of fears they would die early or become sterile,” he explains.

His decision to get the vaccine was driven by an underlying condition he has, as well as the nature of his job.

“I am a librarian and also a bursar for the school, which means I interact with learners frequently. Hence, getting vaccinated was as much about protecting myself as it was about them,” Zulu explains.

His experience with the vaccine, however, was far much better than Agnes’s.

“I never had any fever when I took the first jab, but I felt a niggling pain two days after the second jab, but I’m now okay,” he says.

Chikande Health Centre serves 21,284 people in the areas under T/A Makwangwala and Ganya and sub-T/A Mkutumula in Ntcheu district.

For this health centre, the vaccine rollout targeted 23 health workers, 75 social workers, 1,001 people with chronic conditions, 956 over 60-years and 1,300 people aged 18-59 years..

However, only 56 people received the vaccine during the first phase of vaccine administration, of whom eight went back for the second jab. While 500 doses were available for the second phase, only 127 were administered before the rest were diverted to other vaccination centres which had demand.

The situation worries Andrew Mbingwani, Senior Health Surveillance Assistant for the health centre, for whom the uptake of the vaccine during both phases is far from ideal.

“Not many people have been vaccinated, partly because they don’t know the benefits of the vaccine, partly because of myths surrounding it,” Mbingwani says.

UNICEF Malawi Immunization  Specialist  Steve Macheso, centre, tours the vaccines store room accompanied by Senior Health Surveillance Assistant (SHSA) Andrew Mbingwani and  Health surveillance Assistant,  Lesten Jasteni, at Chikande Health centre
UNICEF Malawi/2021/Gumulira
UNICEF Malawi Immunization Specialist Steve Macheso, centre, tours the vaccines store room accompanied by Senior Health Surveillance Assistant (SHSA) Andrew Mbingwani and Health surveillance Assistant, Lesten Jasteni, at Chikande Health centre

He further explains that the shift of the period for obtaining the second shot from eight weeks to 12 weeks may explain why only eight people got the second dose.

But, he adds, there was a marked difference between the first phase and the second as more and more people appreciated the benefits of the vaccine, with some chiefs inviting health personnel to administer the vaccine in their areas.

Mbingwani has received both doses of the vaccine and says it has given him confidence as he goes about discharging his work. But he worries about the low uptake of the vaccine among health workers, for their own good as well as the communities they serve.

Only six health workers at the health centre took the vaccine.

“Health workers are supposed to give accurate messages to communities. But how can you provide accurate messages about the vaccine when you haven’t gotten one? We need to be exemplary,” Mbingwani explains.

While he yearns for mindset change among fellow health workers, he feels communities need to play their part in the fight against the pandemic.

COVID-19 prevention measures such as facemasks and handwashing are mandatory at the hospital, but he laments that business is going on as usual in the communities, with people gathering in crowds or shaking hands.

“Changing people’s behaviours is a process which one cannot wish away in a day. We need to accept that the pandemic is here to stay, but what we need is prevention. Besides facemasks, avoiding handshakes or washing hands, the greatest preventive measure is the vaccine,” Mbingwani says.

The change may not be manifest physically, but Salim contends that people, who were previously sceptical of, and indifferent to, the vaccine, have changed.

“Most people have realised that the myths and rumours were not true because they can see we’re still alive and healthy. Some wanted to get vaccinated, but it was too late because the vaccines had run out,” he explains.

The vaccine has become Zulu’s passion. The father of four has made himself a messenger for the vaccine, commending its benefits not only to his fellow teachers, but to anyone who would lend him an ear.

“I have encouraged teachers, neighbours and members of my wife’s village bank get vaccinated. For them, the vaccine cannot be available soon enough,” Zulu says.

Agnes is equally upbeat and determined to spread the word.

“I’m not dead, but I am vaccinated and protected against the virus. Listen to the government; it wouldn’t plan to harm you,” she says.