POOR access to health facilities and lack of information is fueling reluctance to vaccinate against Covid-19 in Matabeleland North province, with most largely rural districts recording low vaccination rates, a year after the government launched the vaccination program.
In March last year, President Emmerson Mnangagwa officially launched Zimbabwe’s Covid-19 vaccination program in Victoria Falls with an initial target of vaccinating 60% of Zimbabwe’s adult population to achieve herd immunity.
The target has since been revised to 70% of the population by mid-year, in line with World Health Organization (WHO) targets.
Ambitious targets were set for Victoria Falls – the only town in Matabeleland North – where the government aimed to vaccinate the majority of the population in a short period of time to facilitate the reopening of Zimbabwe’s tourist industry which was stifling under the weight. closed borders.
A survey conducted by the Zimbabwe Independent in collaboration with the Information Development Trust (IDT), a non-profit organization that helps journalists in Zimbabwe and southern Africa investigate issues of corruption and poor governance, revealed that the vaccination program does not was successful only in Hwange district where Victoria Falls is located.
The survey used a combination of daily Covid-19 vaccination data from the Ministry of Health and Childcare and interviews with affected communities to map vaccination trends in the province.
According to the ministry’s situation report as of April 11, 2022, only 41.1% of Matabeleland North’s population of 606,338 people over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated against Covid-19.
The province is far behind Bulawayo, which leads in national vaccination coverage with 47% of the city’s eligible population of 369,010 having received its second dose of the vaccine.
The figures for Matabeleland North would be particularly worrying for the authorities because Victoria Falls – the only town in the province – has been given priority in the vaccination program because of its strategic importance for the economy.
Authorities say Victoria Falls’ vaccination coverage is now above the 70% target set by the World Health Organization (WHO) for achieving herd immunity, but the resort town is surrounded by districts where rates of inoculation are very low due to insufficient access to health. sanitary conditions and the general lack of information on the vaccination programme.
Some districts in Matabeleland North, such as Binga, Tsholotsho and Nkayi, have limited sanitation infrastructure, forcing villagers to travel up to 50 kilometers to reach the nearest clinic or hospital.
Nkayi, one of the largest districts in the province, has only eight health centers, which consist of six clinics, namely Dakamela, Sikhobokhobo, Sesemba, Ziyangeni, Guwe and Zenka.
There is a mission hospital and the main rural district hospital of Nkayi, located in the center of Nkayi and serving 156 villages.
The vast district of Binga has only four clinics, namely Nsenga, Sinansengwe, Pashu and Chipate as well as one district hospital.
Only 35% of Nkayi’s population has been fully vaccinated and 27% of Binga eligible people have received the vaccine.
Lameck Sibanda, a kraal chief from Somakantana village headed by Chief Sikhobokhobo in Nkayi, said he found it difficult to convince his subjects to get vaccinated against Covid-19 because health facilities were not accessible. .
Sibanda said most people in his area were skeptical of modern medicine as it was alien to them as they had limited access to health facilities since the colonial era.
He said the situation had been exacerbated by the misinformation that followed the introduction of Covid-19 vaccines and the lack of medical professionals on the ground to counter the phenomenon.
Zimbabwe’s vaccine reluctance has been widely attributed to complacency and misinformation that have given rise to many myths about Covid-19 vaccines.
The situation is worse in rural areas like Nkayi and in villages like Somakatana where access to the media is almost non-existent.
“The problem is that most of our communities don’t have nearby health facilities, and we rely on traditional healers, prophets and herbs for treatment,” Sibanda said.
“So when these vaccines were introduced, there was no adequate information around them other than threats from government officials that we would be denied access to public places and humanitarian aid.
“I attribute the few people who took the vaccines in this village to those who were intimidated by the threats.
“Now that it’s been a year and nothing has happened to the unvaccinated, people are increasingly hesitant to get vaccinated.”
Sibanda said he suspected more people died of Covid-19 in his village at the height of the pandemic which first broke out in 2020, but relatives did not know the cause of the deaths due to the lack of information.
“We had an elderly woman who died in June last year and we suspect it was Covid-19 because one of her daughters had come over from South Africa and the fact that she had issues breathing, which eventually caused his death,” he added. .
Sibanda further said, “As there was little information about the symptoms of Covid-19 or where people could go if they suspected they had the disease and because of the long distances we have to travel to get to the nearest clinics, people resorted to traditional means of treating illnesses.
“So to expect them to go and get the Covid-19 vaccines in large numbers would be asking too much.”
In Nkunzi village in Tsholotsho, Miriam Ncube from Nkunzi village said that apart from the vaccination being against her religious beliefs, she would not have taken the Covid-19 vaccines as the vaccination centers were far from her village.
“I drink herbs to boost my immune system and that’s the reason I’m still alive,” Ncube said.
“Clinics are far from our villages, and due to poor road conditions, even nurses find it difficult to carry out educational programs from village to village.
“There is a huge lack of information around Covid-19 vaccines and that’s why the majority of us haven’t vaccinated.”
Admire Kuretu, the provincial medical director for Matabeleland North, expressed concern about the low uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine in the province, which he partly attributed to misinformation.
Kuretu said most myths about Covid-19 vaccines are linked to misinformation circulating on social media platforms such as WhatsApp and Facebook.
For example, some people have been led to believe that Covid-19 vaccines could cause infertility, alter a person’s genes, or even cause premature death.
“People should understand that these vaccines were tested for a long time before they were approved by the World Health Organization,” Kuretu said.
“The misinformation has really cost us because they (the villagers) tell our staff that they don’t trust anything that comes from the government.”
Sifundo Mpala (49), who is an apostolic sect leader in the Somakantana village of Nkayi, said he advised his family and church members to stay away from Covid-19 vaccines because they were against their religious beliefs.
Mpala said his church, which has just over 20 members, does not believe in any form of vaccination.
“The Holy Spirit doesn’t allow us to do that,” he said.
“As a prophet the holy spirit advised that we should be injected with medicine which is not good for our body so we should avoid them and few months later these words came true and as believers, we are not going to be vaccinated.
Sibanda, the head of the Somakantana kraal, said that despite the obstacles, he tried to persuade other villagers to get vaccinated against Covid-19.
“I tried to call meetings and told the villagers that they risked losing their land if they continued to avoid the vaccination program, but that didn’t help.”
Health campaigners say, through their nationwide survey in both urban and rural areas, that vaccine hesitancy is driven primarily by lack of trust in vaccines and the authorities who administer them.
Kuretu said to counter misinformation, communities should avoid social media posts and videos that have caused vaccine hesitancy.
He said lack of resources had led to poor schooling within the communities.