The head of the African Union health watchdog, John Nkengasong, revealed on Thursday that he was battling COVID-19 but had survived the worst thanks to his jabs, as he urged the continent to fight against reluctance to vaccination.
Experts fear that reluctance to take the vaccine, resulting from public skepticism about injections bought overseas and fear of side effects, could prolong the pandemic in Africa, a continent of nearly 1.3 billion inhabitants.
Nkengasong, the director of the African Centers for Disease Control (CDC), said he contracted the infection last week despite his full vaccination in April.
“The severity of the attack is so unbearable. The headaches, the fever … every part of your body is affected,” the Cameroonian virologist said at an online press briefing, where he appeared tired.
But the vaccination spared him the worst, he said, adding that without the vaccines “I wouldn’t be here.”
“Vaccines save lives and there is no doubt about it. Even though we have one or two reported side effects, that does not negate the fact that the benefit far outweighs the side effects,” he said.
The deployment of vaccines in Africa has been extremely slow in part due to the unavailability of vaccines, with rich countries accused of accumulating vaccines to the detriment of poorer countries.
Less than 2% of the continent’s population has been fully immunized, according to the Africa CDC.
The race to administer more doses has been further complicated by logistical hurdles, with some countries unable to distribute vaccines before they expire, and by reluctance to vaccinate.
In many parts of Africa, concerns about side effects or rumors that the vaccine causes impotence or is otherwise dangerous have fueled distrust of vaccines among the population.
Burundi, one of the last countries to resist vaccinations along with Eritrea and North Korea, said last month it had accepted vaccines offered as part of the international Covax initiative which aims to provide doses to the poorest countries.
Africa has until recently been spared the worst of the pandemic, accounting for just 2.4% of cases globally, but numbers have risen as it struggles to contain more virulent variants of the coronavirus.
On a positive note, African Union officials said Thursday that 11 countries on the continent, in addition to six in the Caribbean, had started taking delivery of the 400 million single doses of Johnson & Johnson they had purchased.
The jabs, touted as essential for speeding up inoculation, will be distributed until September of next year.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa described the deployment as an “important step forward” for the continent in its quest to protect the health and well-being of its people.
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