NUMEROUS issues are surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and something of great interest today is about access to vaccines against the ailment being a human right. International Conference on Public Health in Africa (CPHIA) organising committee member and renowned South Africa-based epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim has answered some of the questions which keep coming up regarding inoculations against the deadly coronavirus. According to Professor Karim, people have the right to accept or refuse the vaccines and it is important to determine when individual human rights cease to exist. While he is a strong backer of individual human rights and their protection, Prof Karim says there are times when public health practitioners have to strike a balance between public and individual rights. “For example, we have the right to free speech and that right is highly treasured. But the right to free speech has limitations, my right to free speech does not give me the right to harm others,” he elucidates. The professor says now that there is SARS-COVID2 (scientific name for coronavirus), public health practitioners have no choice but to do what is right to benefit the masses.
“Each person who is unvaccinated poses a risk to either people they stay with, travel with by public transport, the people they work and socialise with. For that reason, society has a right to control public behaviour and to insist on certain behaviours,” he notes. Austria is one of the countries that have made vaccination against coronavirus mandatory. In Africa, Kenya has announced plans to deny services to unvaccinated people with effect from December 21 this year. Recently, the Kenyan government announced that it would issue a directive next month to prevent citizens who have not been immunised against coronavirus from receiving government services. Zambia, which is striving to attain herd immunity among its citizens, has only seven percent of the target population jabbed against the virus.
Is Zambia taking a leaf from Kenya?
A couple of days ago, Minister of Health Silvia Masebo announced a catalogue of preventive measures put in place in view of the highly virulent variant, Omicron, first discovered from near-neighbour South Africa.
One such measure is that people must show vaccination certificates for them to be allowed to enter any government building. All travellers from risky countries would be quarantined for 10 days in designated places at their own cost. On the other hand, Government has committed itself to rolling out nationwide the vaccination of two million people by Christmas day using areas of mass gatherings like shopping malls. And for people rebuffing the vaccines for various reasons, including myths, Prof Karim has a word for them. Some of the consequences of not being jabbed would be pressure from citizens of other countries who would not want to mingle with the unvaccinated visitors. Others would suffer travel restrictions and, worse still, employment engagement. On vaccine donations to countries like Zambia by the West, Prof Karim feels such bequest of the life-saving medicines is a vital as life itself because it is the only way poor nations can have such medicines. His only worry is the difficulty African countries have to endure to get the vaccines in good time. It disheartens Prof Karim that every time developing countries place orders for vaccines, they get pushed to the back of the queue. Going by Prof Karim, the COVID-19 herd immunity estimates are based on calculations and that the first reproductive rate of the virus in Wuhan, China, was at three percent. Coronavirus has been evolving to develop a fair replica rate of infection, as each new variant comes, it has a different rate of reproductive infection. Prof Karim cites the Delta, which is considered to be the most transmissible variant with the highest infection rate, as having a productive rate of about six percent. “The reason we don’t know what the actual herd immunity or level is is because you can only calculate that at the end of the pandemic,’’ he says. Different countries have dissimilar levels of herd immunity and every individual nation is trying to achieve that as quickly as possible. “There is no specific timeline for that. Each country wants to do it as quickly as possible,” Prof Karim says. CPHIA 2021, which is scheduled for this month, aims to provide a unique platform for researchers, policymakers, advocates, community leaders, health workers, and other stakeholders to share perspectives and research findings in public health. The conference will help provide evidence on how African scientists have fared in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. South Africa has since recorded the fourth wave of COVID-19 and Zambia has recorded three cases as of Sunday. There is renewed hope that the CPHIA conference is going to set a new way of thinking about public health and prevention measures in Africa.