Why Covid-19 vaccine myths continue to spread in Kwale

Covid vaccine

A health worker vaccinates a Nyeri resident against Covid-19 in Nyeri Town on September 20, 2021. 

Photo credit: Joseph Kanyi | Nation Media Group

When Geoffrey Wanyoike told his family and friends that he wanted to be vaccinated for Covid-19, they discouraged him as locally fabricated myths regarding its safety made many people shun it.

Eventually, Mr Wanyoike, a representative of people with disabilities at the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) in Kwale County,

agreed to be inoculated.

“When Covid-19 vaccination was first introduced, there was information going around that if a person with disabilities is jabbed, their condition will worsen,” he told the Nation. 

“So when my friends learnt that I had been immunized, they said I had only two years to live.”

Many people in Kwale have avoided the Covid-19 vaccine, making it among the counties with the lowest vaccination rates.

The latest data from the Ministry of Health show that Kwale is ranked 38 among the 47 counties in vaccination, with only 78,915 people jabbed out of a targeted population of 451,261.

It is also second in the Coast region with the least number of inoculated people, followed by Tana River County, which is ranked 45.

Mr Wanyoike, who is among the 17.5 per cent of people vaccinated in Kwale, said he defied the beliefs and received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in 2021.

But it has emerged that misinformation is playing a key role in creating fear about the vaccines among residents.

“I was threatened and dared by people who believed in the false information going around about the effects of the vaccine. I stood my ground,” he said. 

“Since I am a church minister, I went ahead and was vaccinated just to prove to the other people with disabilities that they too can be vaccinated.”

He said he had not experienced any negative effects that could be related to the vaccine.

But it is a different case for 50-year-old Juma Dzombo, who also has a disability.

Despite campaigns by the national government and local officials to encourage people to get vaccinated, he is among those reluctant to get it.

He cites the fear of losing his other leg as his main hindrance. The other leg is paralysed and he crutches to walk.

“I was scared of being vaccinated because it was said that there are effects once you get vaccinated and you can either faint or develop other illnesses,” he said.

He said this created fear among people with disabilities “because everyone was thinking of how worse their condition would get. We also had people who would get sick and we would ignorantly link that to the fact that they got vaccinated”.

But Mr Dzombo, a coordinator for people with disabilities in Kinondo ward, hopes to be vaccinated soon after hearing testimonies from some of his vaccinated colleagues.

“I have learnt that the jab is a normal one. I am also going to encourage my friends to do the same,” he said.

Like Mr Dzombo, members of minority groups such as the Makonde, Wapemba and fishing communities on Kwale’s islands have not accepted the jab.

But the number of those vaccinated in Kwale is expected to increase after public health officials, civil society organisations and non-governmental groups partnered in a bid to demystify the beliefs related to vaccines.

The Aga Khan Foundation in partnership with the Human Development Agenda (Huda), a Kwale-based civil society lobby, is implementing a project called the Covid-19 Response Programme to strengthen responses to the pandemic.

Huda Executive Director Kashi Jermaine said lack of Covid-19 information, misinformation, disinformation and limited access to services are among key factors slowing down vaccine uptake in Kwale.

The six-month-long project is focusing on Msambweni and Lungalunga sub-counties with the goal of increasing Covid-19 vaccine uptake and providing psychosocial support and economic recovery to women and minorities affected by the pandemic.

“We are going to work closely with the county government department of Health, ward administrators, the office of the county commissioner, the National Disability Council, religious leaders and any other relevant institutions to ensure that our objectives are achieved,” Mr Jermaine said.

He lamented that people in remote villages could not get the right information about vaccines, thus allowing room for myths to spread.

“This was an uphill task in those communities and it is the reason why some of them have not been vaccinated to date,” he said.

Traditional communities in Msambweni constituency are the least interested in taking Covid-19 vaccines, said Public Health Officer Bati Beja.

“We have more numbers [of people seeking the vaccines] in hospitals around Diani because this is a cosmopolitan town,” he said. 

“The majority of those who are seeking the jab are either professionals or residents who want to travel out of the country. We have very few from the rural areas.”

He added that efforts by health officials to sensitise people in rural areas and even make the vaccines accessible at the nearest centres were futile.

“We would send a team of four officers to camp in villages so that people may access the vaccine. But at the end of the day, only one or two people would show up and that for us was a waste of resources,” he said.

But Mr Beja he said would be willing to partner with civil society groups to sensitise locals about Covid-19 vaccines to counter misinformation and disinformation before administering jabs to them.

Kenya has vaccinated only 34 per cent of its adult population, with 9.4 million fully vaccinated against a target of 27 million.