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Omicron Variant: How Safe is Southern Africa?

The Omicron variant of Covid, first discovered in South Africa, is causing countries around the world to impose new restrictions and tighten...

The Omicron variant of Covid, first discovered in South Africa, is causing countries around the world to impose new restrictions and tighten their borders.

The new strain is "no surprise", says former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who added that the failure by richer countries to share vaccine doses is "coming back to haunt us".

So do countries in southern Africa have enough vaccines, and are they reaching the people who need them?

How do vaccination rates compare?

The global average is more than 100 doses per 100 people, and many richer countries have far exceeded that.

But in South Africa, only 42 doses have been administered per 100 people. Elsewhere in the region, the rates are even lower. Lesotho has given out fewer than 30 doses per 100 people, and Namibia just 25.

Is there enough supply?

African countries have relied on a combination of bilateral deals, donations and the Covax vaccine-sharing scheme to get jabs rolled out.

Earlier this year, countries struggled to get supplies via Covax, but the situation improved in July and August.

Although the supply of doses to African countries has increased, the Global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi) says donations so far have been "ad hoc, provided with little notice and short shelf lives".
We have reported on several African countries having to throw away vaccine doses because they exceeded their expiry dates.
This makes it extremely challenging for countries to plan vaccination campaigns, Gavi said in a recent statement.

In South Africa, for example, last week the health ministry delayed the delivery of more vaccine doses because it had too much stock.

The country's deputy director-general of the health department told Reuters news agency that South Africa had 16.8 million doses in stock.

We have reported on several African countries having to throw away vaccine doses because they exceeded their expiry dates.

Data provided by the Airfinity research project suggests that 384 million doses have been delivered to Africa for a population of more than 1.2 billion people.

South Africa has had 32.5 million doses delivered, in a population of about 40 million adults. Botswana has had about 2.4 million doses delivered for a population of 2.3 million, and Namibia about one million for 2.5 million people.

Why the low uptake?

Uneven supply has clearly been a problem, but the fact South Africa has had to delay the delivery of doses suggests there is also something else going on.

South Africa's Health Minister Joe Phaahla suggests "fake news" is playing a role in making people - especially younger age groups - unsure about the vaccine.

There is a lot of fear - sometimes driven by misinformation or a lack of good information - about the safety of the vaccine.

Serious complications are extremely rare, based on evidence from wide-scale clinical trials and the billions already jabbed, and pale in comparison to the complications from Covid, even in younger people.

Some of the claims circulating are outright false, but some are based on an element of truth - that you can still get Covid after being vaccinated, for example.

Research in partnership with South Africa's health department found this has led some people to believe vaccines don't work.

But that's not the case - you may still catch Covid, but for most people it will be far milder because the vaccine reduces symptoms, keeps people out of hospital and massively reduces deaths from the virus.

Problems reaching more rural areas

Fear of side effects and safety were identified as two of the biggest reasons people weren't getting vaccinated. But the third was access, including the time it takes to travel to vaccination centres.

In north-west South Africa, many people in rural communities don't have easy access to vaccination sites, according to the report produced for the health department.

There have also been issues with supply in certain areas, with sites running out of doses before they've vaccinated everyone who's turned up to be jabbed.

Sarah Downs, a researcher in vaccines and infectious diseases at Wits University in Johannesburg, said there was "a lot more hesitancy than anti-vax rhetoric" in South Africa.

And in some cases there were barriers to people being vaccinated, such as clinics not going out to where people are, or a misconception that they have to pay for the vaccine.

Poor public transport in some areas has also made it more difficult and expensive for people to get to a clinic, she said.

As an example of how these different factors can play out, a survey by the University of Johannesburg found white people were more vaccine-hesitant than black people, but white people were also more likely to have had the jab, possibly because of better access to healthcare. - BBC

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