By Tracey Ishmael of ARTICLE 19
Friday 23 April 2021 marked the start of World immunization week, which ends on 30 April 2021. This year’s theme is “vaccines bring us closer.” However, an apparent lack of information regarding the COVID 19 vaccine in Kenya appears to be doing the opposite.
It is 3.30am on 29 March 2021. I have been up since 2am and just can’t sleep. The thought of getting the Covid-19 jab is scaring me. I am one of those people you see in the funny clips screaming before they get the jab. I try to think of a way to get myself out of it, but I know it will not work. My family and team are going with me early in the morning to the vaccination centre. I know they will definitely not leave me behind.
8.30am and my cousin knocks at my door. At this point, I have no clear information on the vaccine. The only thing I know is what I have read on social media platforms. In the car, everyone is silent, and my mind wanders off to all the information I have read online. How we will get blood clots and die. How the side effects will be unbearable. Then it hits me, part of my worries is because, unlike with other vaccine drives in the country in the past, there was little public awareness done by the Kenyan government on the Covid-19 vaccine. When the polio vaccine was being rolled out, for example, the Kenya government made it easy for parents to vaccinate their children. There was a large awareness campaign through, billboards, radio, television, skits, and promotional materials such as caps, t-shirts, and aprons, as well as door-to-door campaigns and mobile teams visiting places of religion. There was so much transparency in the process that even those sceptical of vaccines were able to get on board. This was my expectation for the COVID-19 vaccine, to say the least. Granted there has been awareness around prevention measures – the need to wash hands, wear masks and keep social distance – but there has been little information regarding the vaccine.
The government has not shared much about the brand of vaccine it had procured. I had heard on the news that it was the Oxford/AstraZeneca, but there were also rumours that the Sputnik V vaccine was in the country. I had no way of knowing which one of these I was going to receive, or if I might even receive one of the alternatives – Pfizer-BioNTech, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen, or Moderna. Apart from a few tweets and Facebook posts, there was little information on what side effects to expect after one is vaccinated, if one needed to have been tested before going for the vaccine, or if it was safe for expectant mothers at all. My mind is now running wild and I am getting anxious as we near the centre. I am going for a vaccine without knowing much about it. If this is a concern for me, I wonder how those without internet access or understanding of how to find information online are getting their information.
At the health centre, the confusion, lack of communication and organisation is glaring. There are different queues outside the tent where the vaccines are being given, but no one to direct those who are there. As a result, the queues are overcrowded and social distancing is practically impossible. People are pushing and shoving as they became more agitated by the long queues, slow registration process, and the scorching sun. After some time, the registration queue suddenly comes to a stop. I go to check what has happened, only to find that the agent doing the registration has left. Upon inquiry, I am told the health centre only has enough for the 300 people who have already been registered. He has gone to check if more will be made available. No one had told us of this and panic strikes everyone who has not yet been registered. Will we have to try to find time to come back again another day and wait in another queue? After almost half an hour we are assured that more vaccine is being brought and the registration continues under the guidance of Red Crescent staff.
At 1.45pm I am finally registered and have to move to the empty vaccination queue. Again, my fear of the injection comes back and I am practically shaking. A man who is ahead of me tries to encourage me but I don’t have the energy to respond, only nodding my head in agreement to whatever he says. My family, who were a bit ahead of me and have already received the jab, hear the conversation and come to watch as my turn comes, ready with their phones to take photos of me screaming. The man next to me keeps encouraging me, but seeing him get the jab makes me panic. Shortly, I am on the vaccine seat and when the nurse sees the fear in my eyes, she assures me all will be fine. I close my eyes to avoid seeing the injection go into my skin and unconsciously give a painful cry making my whole family laugh as they take photos with their phones.
As we leave for home, we still have no information regarding the covid-19 vaccine we have just received. No one has told us what it is, nor have we been given any document containing the information. I wonder how I am supposed to know what vaccine to get for the second dose. Come to think of it, we have not even been given any information on when the second dose is due, or if we are to take it at the same health centre. Upon inquiry with the nurse, we are told to return on 28 May 2021. I wonder how many people have left without being told. Information being provided appears to be on an inquiry basis, and not voluntary or easily accessible.
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A well-functioning health information system ensures sharing of information in many ways, such as word of mouth from those in positions of authority, using billboards, newspapers, radios, televisions, websites, and social media platforms. Having full and detailed information enables individuals to make genuine, informed decisions about their health and bodies. In our case, information, such as the reasons for the collection of our data at the registration point, the actual vaccine given to us, the follow-up, side effects to watch out for, and action to be taken in case of a reaction to the vaccine has been insufficient and not easily accessible. Information on the cost we have incurred for the vaccine, whether they have been donated to us, the brand, and the manufacturing company should also be easily accessible to the public. If a tender was issued, we need to access this information easily without only relying on online portals or websites. It is also not clear why we have been given that brand of vaccine and not others. Providing such information enables individuals and communities to promote their health, participate effectively in public health administration, claim quality services, monitor progressive realization, expose corruption, hold those responsible to account, and so on.
Whether communicated directly by the government, like in our case where the Ministry of Health through their social media platforms provide information to those who can access it online, through traditional media, or by other means, governments are under obligations to ensure effective access to information for all. Since the biggest number of Kenyan’s cannot access information online, the government should make it accessible through local newspapers, radio, and television.
Four weeks have passed. It is now the world immunization week, which runs from 24-30 April 2021, with the theme for this year being ‘vaccines bring us closer’, yet the COVID-19 vaccine does not appear to have done that due to insufficient information from the government. Every time I feel any slight reaction in my body, I wonder if it could be the COVID-19 vaccine side effects. Or whether I am being paranoid. Doctors say we avoid going to Google for medical answers. However, this time around with no available information, the search engines are our friends. With it comes the worry of misinformation.