Identifying barriers to mass immunisation against COVID-19 in Pakistan: A lower-middle-income vaccine-hesitant country

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This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Farah Waseem, a fourth-year medical student currently studying at the University College of Medicine and Dentistry (UCMD), Lahore, Pakistan. She is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writers and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.


On 11th March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak a global pandemic. Since then, it has infected millions of people and has disrupted the lives of many across the globe. However, as developed countries transition to a post-pandemic period, war-stricken third-world countries such as Pakistan continue to struggle. One of the key barriers to mass immunisation against COVID-19 in Pakistan is vaccine hesitancy. 

As Pakistan is a developing nation that cannot cope with the economic consequences of a country-wide lockdown, this expedited the urgency of vaccinating the population and achieving herd immunity. However, with the rollout of the vaccine, there has been a rise in conspiracy theories as well, i.e. allegedly poor quality of vaccines, questioning of dosing recommendations, and religious prohibitions.

Vaccine hesitancy has always been a major struggle in Pakistan – This explains why, despite the availability of safe and efficient vaccines, Pakistan remains one of the only two countries that have been unsuccessful in eradicating the poliovirus.

In 2019, WHO declared vaccine hesitancy to be one of the 10 major threats to public health worldwide. This has accelerated the deterioration of Pakistan’s already vulnerable health-care system. Misinformation and conspiracy narratives propagated against COVID-19 vaccinations appear to be a significant issue affecting vaccine compliance in Pakistan.

Conspiracy theories permeated social networking sites, such as the virus being bioengineered and the introduction of surveillance microchips to control human beings via vaccines. Anti-vaccination information about vaccine safety, inefficacy, fallacies about subsequent infertility, and other false ideas were also widely circulated, leading to anti-vaccine behaviour among the general public. As a result, many individuals questioned the virus’s existence and the gravity of the issue – hence contributing further to vaccine hesitancy of the masses. 

To address vaccine hesitancy, it would be best to manage it through effective communication techniques, which would be a collaborative project between the state and the healthcare sector. The first step in resolving the issue of vaccine hesitancy would be to earn people’s trust by ensuring them that vaccines are not only helpful in avoiding virus infections but also do not have any major side effects that could harm an individual.

This can be accomplished by establishing mass awareness campaigns, such as door-to-door campaigns and recording adverts and podcasts with well-known healthcare practitioners who are trusted by the general public to address people’s concerns. Effective social media techniques should be developed in conjunction with the WHO to debunk common myths and encourage people who have previously been vaccinated to share their experiences. In addition, religious and cultural leaders should be enlisted to help support the vaccine campaign.

Hence, with efficient communication strategies, we can eliminate the negative presumptions of people towards vaccines which are contributing to a delay in the vaccination drive in Pakistan.

Together through joint efforts of the state, religious leaders, the healthcare sector, and social media influencers we can spread awareness among the masses, and clarify any misconceptions or false notions regarding the COVID-19 vaccination drive.

References

1.            Impact of COVID-19 on people’s livelihoods, their health and our food systems [Internet]. [cited 2021 Apr 17]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news/item/13-10-2020-impact-of-covid-19-on-people’s-livelihoods-their-health-and-our-food-systems

2.            How the COVID-19 crisis is affecting Pakistan′s economy | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 23.07.2020 [Internet]. [cited 2021 Apr 16]. Available from: https://www.dw.com/en/how-the-covid-19-crisis-is-affecting-pakistans-economy/a-54292705

3.            Khan YH, Mallhi TH, Alotaibi NH, Alzarea AI, Alanazi AS, Tanveer N, et al. Threat of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in Pakistan: The need for measures to neutralize misleading narratives. Am J Trop Med Hyg. 2020;103(2):603–4.

4.            Towards a Polio-Free Pakistan in 2021: Aiming to consolidate gains – Pakistan | ReliefWeb [Internet]. [cited 2021 Apr 16]. Available from: https://reliefweb.int/report/pakistan/towards-polio-free-pakistan-2021-aiming-consolidate-gains

5.            https://www.who.int/news-room/spotlight/ten-threats-to-global-health-in-2019

About the author

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Farah Waseem, a fourth-year medical student currently studying at the University College of Medicine and Dentistry (UCMD), Lahore, Pakistan. She is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), a cordial partner of The Sting. She is currently serving as the General Assistant to IFMSA-Pakistan’s National Vice President of External Affairs. She is a huge advocate of youth involvement in global health initiatives and aims to raise her voice for health equity worldwide.

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