Much ado about a vaccine

Much ado about a vaccine

By DELE ADEOLUWA

The imperious COVID-19 pandemic is not about to let Nigeria and other nations of the world off its deadly stranglehold. The world’s number one enemy, in spite of all the global efforts to tame it, has continued to torment and bear its ferocious fangs.

In Nigeria, just when we thought we were off the hook, the total lockdown imposed on the nation in March, last year, having been gradually relaxed and eventually lifted, allowing all the hitherto stultified strata of national life a gusty air of fresh life, the implacable pandemic came in reinforced for a second wave of dread.

Graciously, however, the authorities are not considering a second possible lockdown, which I personally believe will worsen rather than improve things, judging from our first experience. So, there is a cloak of normalcy pervading the land, but locking behind the cloak is a sombre dreariness.

Apart from the record of fresh, shocking high profile COVID-19 related deaths, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) continues to churn out scary COVID-19 statistics. According to the data gleaned from its verified website on Sunday, the number of the confirmed COVID-19 cases had surpassed 100, 000. The report of 1,024 new cases brought the total number to precisely 1,000,087.

The centre also reported eight additional COVID-19 related deaths, bringing the total number of those who had died so far of the virus in Nigeria to 1,358. But there was also the cheering news that 80,030 Nigerians had recovered from the disease.

However, one issue that is bound to generate a lot of storm in the weeks ahead is the expected COVID-19 vaccine. The global search for an effective vaccine to tame the stubborn COVID-19 virus had tasked health experts, who went on the drawing board, fossicking through the maze of knowledge for most parts of last year.

At last, they recorded a breakthrough and a set of different vaccines were produced. Some of them have already been recommended and authorised for use after being taken through clinical trials. And they are already being used abroad.

However, Nigeria is expected to obtain its first shipment of a COVID-19 vaccine this month. According to the Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire, the country is expected to receive 20 million doses of the vaccine. Already, a committee had been raised to select the most suitable of the vaccines available, especially based on the appropriate temperatures required to preserve or protect the vaccine.

The minister said Nigeria had signed up with the Global Vaccine Alliance Initiative, Gavi, and also registered with the Global Access Programme, COVAX, co- led by the World Health Organisation (WHO), for the COVID-19 vaccines.

However, the vaccines landed on the global landscape to stir as much controversy as the COVID-19 pandemic itself. Although not much public attention is being paid to the idea of the vaccine at present in Nigeria, that will change the moment the shipment of the vaccine arrives and is ready to be dispensed.

At that point, to put it mildly, the authorities concerned will need all the tact, the wits and persuasive strategies they could muster to make Nigerians embrace the vaccine.

Two main reasons prompted my surmise. One, a high degree of incredulous scepticism still exists in the country about the veracity or otherwise of COVID-19. Many malcontents still regard the whole COVID-19 campaign as a publicity stunt for what they believe to be pecuniary interests. This is in spite of the degree of awareness that has been created by the authorities on the pandemic.

Two, and most importantly, the health authorities are hitting shocking brick walls in the advanced nations in their attempt to get the vaccines accepted, even among their health workers, in spite of their level of awareness and sophistication!

The case of the United States of America is more shocking. It is said that frontline health workers in many of the country’s hospitals are refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine, even with top-priority access to it. A pregnant nurse, for example, was said to have refused to take the vaccine, believing it is unsafe for her.

In a hospital in one of the counties, fewer than half of the 700 hospital workers were said to be willing to take the vaccine when it was first offered. In another hospital, 20 to 40 per cent of the frontline health workers, who were offered the vaccine, reportedly declined. In another instance, close to 50 per cent of health workers also refused the vaccine.

The doubt among the health workers in US about the vaccine is a serious bother for researchers who had assumed that the hospital staff would be among those most in in tune with the scientific data backing the vaccines.

Global health experts have tried to ferret out and address some of the myths and misconceptions woven around the COVID-19 vaccines, which prompted their shocking rejection in many quarters. Most of those myths are also likely to play out in Nigeria whenever the vaccine arrives.

One of such myths is the fear that the vaccine is capable of altering the DNA.  Experts on the platform of a global online health body, Health Care, have debunked this myth, saying that the first vaccine granted emergency use authorisation contains ‘messenger RNA’(mRNA), which instructs cells to make the “spike protein” found on coronavirus. When the immune system recognises this protein, experts say, it builds an immune response by creating antibodies, teaching the body how to protect against future infection. The mRNA in the vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cell where the genetic material, DNA, is kept.

Another myth is the fear that the vaccine causes infertility in women. According to health experts, this fear was prompted by what they regarded as a misinformation on social media suggesting that the vaccine trains the body to attack syncytin-1, a protein in the placenta, which could lead to infertility.

“The truth,” eggheads posit, “is that there is an amino acid sequence shared between the ‘spike protein’ and a ‘placenta protein’. However, it is too short to trigger an immune response and, therefore, does not affect fertility.”

Yet another myth, according to experts, believes that a person who takes the vaccine is most likely to test positive for COVID-19.  But experts, in faulting this notion, explain that “Viral tests used to diagnose COVID-19 check samples from the respiratory system for the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19.”

They say since there is no live virus in the vaccines, they (vaccines) will not affect the recipient’s test result. “It is possible,” they surmise, “to get infected with the virus before the vaccine has had time to fully protect the recipient’s body.”

There is also the misconception, according to experts, that once a person had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and recovered, he no longer needs to receive the vaccine. But experts say such a person can still benefit from the vaccine.

“At this time,” they explain, “experts do not know how long someone is protected from getting sick again after recovering from COVID-19. The immunity someone gains from having an infection, called natural immunity, varies from person to person. Some early evidence suggests that the natural immunity may not last very long.”

Against the background of this high level of misconceptions about COVID-19, even in a sophisticated society like US, a renowned Nigerian virologist, Prof. Oyewole Tomori, posits that the authorities need to address what he called the “astonishingly high level of trust deficit among the Nigerian people on COVID-19” to guard against vaccine apathy by a vast majority of the people.

Prof. Tomori advises that the campaign to make the COVID-19 vaccine acceptable among Nigerians should be handled very rigorously, the same way polio vaccination was conducted years back. Polio vaccination was initially fiercely resisted but all the initial prejudices against it disappeared after a rigorous and persistent campaign. And it later gained wide acceptance. Today, Nigeria is polio free. The virologist believes that the authorities should adopt the same approach to make COVID-19 vaccine acceptable by Nigerians.

However, before that, the virologist wants government to first address the infrastructural deficit in the country, especially to ensure a reasonably stable power supply needed to preserve or protect the expected vaccine.

Can the south east (Igbo speaking tribe) produce the next Nigerian President come 2023??

He, therefore, advises that the importation of the COVID-19 vaccine be put on hold the till infrastructural deficit is tackled and a reasonable degree of trust is achieved among the people, on COVID-19 and the vaccine being expected. One can hardly agree more.

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