NAIROBI, Kenya — Journalists in Eastern Africa have been navigating the challenges of covering the latest COVID-19 vaccination developments, which are complicated by a lack of access to information about them.
One of the biggest stories in Eastern Africa right now is the region’s low vaccination rates. In Kenya, supply shortages have led to lower rates, along with inequitable distribution and a lack of infrastructural support. This is according to a new report released this month by the Partnership for Evidence-Based COVID-19 response (PERC) — a reliable source of information for those covering the pandemic in Eastern Africa.
PERC is a public –private partnership that supports evidence based measures to reduce the impact of Covid -19 on African Union (AU) Member States. The report notes that an insufficient number of vaccine doses were promised to the low and middle- income countries (LMICs), yet they have not received a single dose- the supply has been lower than expected. As of December, only three African countries have reached the end-of-year WHO vaccination target of 40%.
“The problem with vaccination rollout is that vaccines are not available when needed,” said Dr. Ahmed Ogwell, the deputy director at Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ogwell advises African countries to not accept vaccines with nearing expiration dates. Coupled with vaccine hesitancy are rumours and disinformation about the side effects. The story of vaccines is one that keeps changing — one day we are covering vaccine shortage, another we are covering resistance.
Besides the logistical challenges, low levels of sensitisation and communication in areas of Kenya have exacerbated the poor uptake of vaccines. While the Ministry of Health has been offering national briefings, many in the region are not accessing them. According to the Kenyan Ministry of Health, a total of 8,861,039 vaccines had been administered across the country as of Dec. 18. Of these, 5,288,176 were partially vaccinated and 3,572,863 were fully vaccinated.
The Ministry of Health statistics indicate that Kenya recorded the highest COVID- 19 positivity rate at 29.6 %. This is after 1,020 people tested positive. The number of fatalities stands at 5,353. Total positive cases are 264,727 as at Dec. 19. A total of 8,902, 539 vaccines had so far been administered across the country, and only 13.2 % of adults have been fully vaccinated.
In Uganda, the situation is similar. Vaccine uptake remains low. As of Dec. 10, 1.8 million vaccines had been administered.
“The very nature of vaccines in Sub Saharan Africa is that we are having fewer vaccines, and when we get them there is a distribution challenge,” says Alphonse Shiundu, Kenya Editor at Africa Check.
While Kenyan government policy has been to prioritise delivery of the vaccines to far-flung counties first, infrastructural challenges worsen the situation. To transport the vaccines to these counties, long distances have to be covered, and the terrain poses difficulties in reaching the counties. Some of the measures that have been used include taking vaccines to rural counties and vaccinating under a tree. When the vaccines run out, they have to wait for additional doses.
Advancing COVID-19 literacy
At the start of 2021, COVID-19 literacy among journalists in Kenya and in the region was relatively low, according to the pre-study conducted before the training commenced. Kenya Editors’ Guild (which I help lead) undertook a project to help to demystify fake news, especially regarding vaccines. The project had two phases — training of journalists and the production of a handbook on vaccines.
The pre-study conducted among journalists revealed that journalists had difficulty accessing information on COVID-19 vaccine coverage. They also had to grapple with myths that were doing the rounds at that time.
Dennis Beru — a journalist with Reuben FM, a community news outlet located in Mukuru kwa Reuben, one of the low-income areas of Kenya — participated in the training on safety guidelines and mechanisms for journalists covering COVID-19. Beru says the training helped to keep him informed about COVID-19 so that he could better relay factual information to his audience.
“Before that, we used to get information from the mainstream media,” Reuben said. “But the training exposed us to experts. Therefore we were able to get primary information instead of getting it from secondary sources.”
As the training commenced, the journalists pointed out their fears about the COVID-19 vaccine, borne out of myths and perpetuated through fake news.
After the training Beru says he was more informed.
“There is so much information that is fake,” he said. “When you get news from other sources, you have no time to verify. It will be good if we are trained more on fact checking.
Finding verifiable sources of information about vaccines
The safety handbook with guidelines for journalists covering the COVID-19 pandemic in Kenya was written by Wangethi Mwangi, a veteran editor and journalist trainer. He said the booklet is a veritable source of guidelines on safety, and also a helpful resource for essential frontline workers.
Viral Fact is among sources of reliable information on Covid-19. The platform is a collaboration between African fact checkers and regional offices for the World Health Organization. They keep debunking information around COVID-19 vaccination. Shiundu, from Africa Check, advises that journalists should get in touch with epidemiologists and experts at the Ministry of Health because they will have a deeper understanding of the current situation, which is ever-evolving.
Looking ahead to 2022
To address the issue of low uptake, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will take advantage of upcoming large events in the continent. One of them is the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), which brings together soccer fans from across the continent.
“We want to take advantage of AFCON in Cameroon. In this wave, increase uptake of the vaccine in the African environment,” Dr. Ogwell said.
In the months ahead, there will also be efforts to track the efficacy of the vaccines.
Dr. John Kiiru from Kenya Medical Research Institute notes that “The most important thing is not to stop you from getting an infection, but to deal with it.”
Dr. Shilla Simiyu, an expert in infectious diseases and an epidemiologist, says that the Ministry of Health is using a three-prong approach to deal with the virus: intervention, diagnostic and research. “We are trying to do so much at the same time — we are learning at the same time we are responding to the virus. If you are vaccinated, you are responding better.”
Ogwell, the deputy director at Africa CDC, says the institution will begin systematic studies on the population in January, to begin to track the efficacy of vaccines. He notes that they have not prioritized this before because certain elements are needed to do the study. “You must have good documentation of the individuals who are getting vaccinated,” he said.
“We have not prioritized it because it has not been a priority,” he went on to say. “The priority has been to get people vaccinated. We are encouraging countries to use rapid antigen kits as we ramp up our ability to deal with the virus.”
As news about the pandemic and vaccines continues to develop, Dr. Peter Mwesige, a Ugandan editor and journalism trainer, urges journalists to avoid alarmist reporting. He cited a case where some Ugandan journalists reported the arrival of the first cases of Omicron last week “like it was the dawn of a new Covid-19 phase. Some even said the opening up of the country in January was now in the balance.”
Ogwell urges journalists to use their capacity to get the right information out. When an issue that is not yet clear comes up, he said, debate the issue, ask the experts, and unpack the science so that the right information goes out to the public.
About this briefing
This story is part of a series of briefings written by science/health journalists who have offered best practices and insights on covering COVID-19. These briefings are being published as part of a Knight Center initiative sponsored by UNESCO and with funding from the World Health Organization. To read more about the briefings, click here. Additionally, access the briefings in multiple languages here:
- Latin America & the Caribbean briefing (Spanish, Portuguese, English)
- North Africa and the Middle East briefing (Arabic, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese)
- Southern Africa briefing (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese)
- West Africa briefing (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese)
- Eastern Africa briefing (English, Spanish, Portuguese)
Additionally, join us for the webinar “Variants, vaccines and medications: What journalists need to know to improve COVID-19 coverage” on Thursday, Jan. 27 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. U.S. Central Time (GMT -6).
The event, held in English, will feature simultaneous interpretation to Arabic, French, Portuguese and Spanish. Click here to register.
This webinar is being organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas in partnership with UNESCO and with funding from the World Health Organization and UNESCO’s Multi-Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists.
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