Sixteen-year-old Temitope Raheem was listening to the radio after school when a woman phoned in to share her apparent experience of taking the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine the previous day.
“She called in and said that she was vomiting blood from her mouth and had to apply a local remedy to stop it,” Raheem told VICE World News. There are no documented cases of anyone in the world having this reaction to the vaccine.
But this wasn’t the first time Raheem had experienced a conspiracy theory-driven attempt to warn others off the vaccine. She has heard many false claims about the apparent harmful effects of the vaccine, including that it actually infects people with COVID-19. “[People say] they don’t want to take it because they don’t want to have coronavirus,” Raheem added.
At the beginning of March, Nigeria received nearly 4 million vaccine doses through the World Health Organisations COVAX programme — an initiative that works to ensure the equitable global distribution of the vaccine. Frontline health workers were vaccinated first, followed by public officials, including President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbanjo who received their shots live on TV in an attempt to prove that the vaccine was safe.
Still, uptake has been painfully slow. According to the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) – the organisation responsible for implementing Nigeria’s vaccine rollout – only a million Nigerians have been vaccinated, an anaemic figure for a country of nearly 200 million people and where many vaccination centres have opened eligibility to all adults.
The Nigerian Centre for Disease Control has recorded over 2,000 deaths from nearly 200,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases. Health experts fear that the current high rate of vaccine hesitancy has resulted from a flood of deliberate disinformation and conspiracy theories that are pushing many people away from getting vaccinated, leading to fears that the government will fall worryingly short of its target of vaccinating 40 percent of the population by the end of the year.
Anti-vaxxer sentiments are not new in Nigeria. In 2004, Northern Nigeria saw the widespread rejection of the polio vaccine following widely-debunked rumours that the vaccine sterilises Muslim girls. In 2017, some falsely claimed that a small outbreak of monkeypox, similar to smallpox, in the southeast of the country, was a result of a military operation that was injecting people with the disease.
“If you don't respond to misinformation on time, people will begin to believe it and it will become difficult to convince them that what they believe is not true,” said Oyewale Tomori, professor of virology and former vice-chancellor of Redeemer's University. “And to achieve this, you need to convince the people that the vaccine is safe and one of the easiest ways is to get the leaders themselves to take it publicly and people will like to observe and monitor them to see if there is any form of reaction.”
This solution can pose problems in a country where many don’t trust the government.
“I am scared of taking it because I read about people in Australia complaining about having blood clots after taking the vaccine on social media,” Clement Onomuodeke, a Microbiology student from Delta state in southern Nigeria, told VICE World News. “In Nigeria, I am only seeing pictures of people injected with the vaccine but I wasn’t convinced enough because those taking it are politicians.”
Nigeria is expecting another shipment of 57 million vaccine doses by the end of the month. Dr. Faisal Shuaib, head of the NPHCDA, says 41 million doses will come from the African Union, which has procured 270 million doses for member states, while 16 million doses will come through the COVAX program. As well as the Oxford-AstraZaneca vaccine, the batch is expected to feature the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as well as the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Currently, Nigeria lacks the facilities to properly store the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which requires storage temperatures of -86°C. It will also need a steady supply of electricity in a country that suffers from regular power outages.
Last January, the Nigerian government allocated 10 billion naira (about £19 million) to support domestic vaccine production as well as the rollout of existing vaccines. The government has also set up a presidential steering committee on COVID-19 in collaboration with the NPHCDA to implement educational town hall meetings across Nigeria. The goal is to improve community knowledge of the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccinations while dispelling myths.
Private institutions are also offering their support in the effort. “We are combatting vaccine myths and misinformation, preparing clubs to amplify pro-vaccination messaging via radio jingles and town crier-style announcements,” said Dr Tunji Funsho, chair of Rotary Nigeria’s National Polio Plus Committee. Dr Funsho is leading mobilisation efforts to find volunteers to conduct a house-to-house vaccine registration drive.
Last week, billboards featuring Nigerian celebrities such as comedian Ali Baba, singer Akin Shuga and actor Kate Henshaw, were erected across the country calling on Nigerians to take the vaccine and maintain COVID-19 protocols.
Rotimi Lawuyi is one of the relatively few vaccinated Nigerians. The accountant was vaccinated in Port Harcourt, a large city in southern Nigeria.
“The experience was quite okay,” Lawuyi said. “My initial concern was that there was going to be a crowd when I went to take the jab. It was a smooth process. I took the yellow fever and HPV vaccines….back in 2014, so that experience helped me muster the courage to take the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Raheem, meanwhile, still hopes to take the vaccine, though she’s nervous as it will be her first experience of a vaccine. In the end, she says, she will base her decision on what her family and those around her decide to do, and not what she hears on any more radio call-in shows.
“I want to take a lot of time and then see how it [affects] those that have taken it,” Raheem says. “My parents and neighbours also taking it will do a lot in persuading me to also take it.”