A preliminary analysis by World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that over 73 percent of health workers in Africa are yet to be fully vaccinated, a worrying trend that risks stalling the fight against Covid-19.
The United Nation’s agency now warns that if this trend does not change, then the continent risk losing the fight of Covid-19 pandemic.
“Only sixteen countries in the region have less than one health worker per 1000 population. Any loss of these essential workers to Covid-19 due to illness or death therefore heavily impacts on service provision capacity,” said WHO Regional Director for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti.
WHO in its analysis said the bulk frontline workforce remaining not vaccinated has raised concern among United Nation’s agency with the report stating in the 25 countries sampled only 1.3 million health workers were fully vaccinated since March 2021, with just six countries reaching more than 90 percent while nine countries have fully vaccinated less than 40 percent.
In a sharp contrast, a recent WHO global study of 22 mostly high-income countries reported that above 80 percent of their health and care workers are fully vaccinated.
“The majority of Africa’s health workers are still missing out on vaccines and remain dangerously exposed to severe Covid-19 infection. Unless our doctors, nurses and other frontline workers get full protection we risk a blowback in the efforts to curb this disease hence we must ensure our health facilities are safe working environments,” said Dr Moeti.
The UN agency said it was important to have high vaccine coverage among health workers not only for their own protection but also for their patients and to ensure health care systems keep operating during a time of extreme need.
On the continent’s health worker’s shortage, the agency noted that there is an acute and profound of such workers with only one country in the region having the required health workers of 10.9 per 1000 population to deliver essential health services.
Based on data reported to WHO by countries in the African Region, since March 2020, there have been more than 150 400 Covid-19 infections in health workers, accounting for 2.5 percent of all confirmed cases and 2.6 percent of the total health work force in the region.
Five countries; Algeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe account for about 70 percent of all the Covid-19 infections reported in health workers.
After almost four months of a sustained decline, Covid-19 cases in the general population in Africa have plateaued.
For the first time since the third wave peak in August, cases in Southern Africa have increased, jumping 48 percent in the week ending on 21 November compared with the previous week.
“The risk of health worker infection rises whenever cases surge. This is a pattern that has been observed during the previous three waves of the pandemic. With a fourth wave likely to hit after the end-of-year travel season, health workers will again face risks amid low vaccination coverage,” said Dr Moeti.
Dr Moeti said to date, more than 227 million vaccine doses have been administered in Africa. In 39 countries which provided data, 3.9 million doses have been given to health workers.
“With a new surge in cases looming over Africa following the end-of-year festive season, countries must urgently speed up the rollout of vaccines to health care workers,” said Dr Moeti.
Vaccine shipments have been on the rise over the past three months. Africa has received 330 million doses from the COVAX Facility, the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team and bilateral agreements since February 2021. Of these 83 percent have been delivered since August alone as vaccine supply picks up, addressing uptake bottlenecks and accelerating rollout become more critical.
The UN agency said all countries in Africa have prioritized health workers in their vaccination plans. The low coverage is likely due to the availability of vaccination services, especially in rural areas, as well as vaccine hesitancy.
Recent studies found that only around 40 percent of health workers intended to receive a Covid-19 vaccine in Ghana and less than 50 percent in Ethiopia.
Concerns over vaccine safety and the adverse side effects of the vaccines have been identified as the main reasons for their hesitancy. Health workers are key sources of information for the general population and their attitudes can influence vaccine uptake.
“The Covid-19 vaccine stands among humanity’s extraordinary scientific feats. In Africa, we’re gradually overcoming supply constraints. Now is not the time to stumble over vaccine mistrust,” said Dr Moeti.
Supporting national efforts to drive up health worker vaccination, WHO is coordinating trainings and dialogue on vaccine safety and efficacy to help address doubts or misconceptions around the Covid-19 vaccine as well as advocating open and honest communication about the benefits and side effects of vaccination.