This is a weekly report of Covid-19 and vaccine sentiments, rumours & misinformation in South Africa. It provides an analysis of online and offline content. Thanks to all who contribute to this report each week.

Click here to download this report as a pdf

KEY TRENDS

 Concerns about vaccines for under 12-year-olds. People have expressed shock and confusion about the approval of the COVID-19 vaccine MC Pharma for the age group 3 to 17 years. (Here) In their arguments they misrepresented the World Health Organisation’s statement released on 28 September about the vaccination of the children under 12 years old. (Here) Their sentiments included, “I know I’m a day late but what a shock about Sahpra approving the covovax for children from 3 upwards!!! (Here) “Go search on telegram and other search engines for a list of what babies were jabbed with 40 years ago and what they get jabbed with now. It went from max 5 to hundreds of things that shocked me. Also go search how ADHD, autism, and lots more are now linked to baby jabs past 40 years. You will be shocked, good luck”  (Here) According to SAHPRA, the authorization of the 3-17 years use was based on acceptable safety, quality and efficacy data submitted by MC Pharma Pty (Ltd). (Here)

Concern about children and alleged COVID-19 deaths. Another article shared on Telegram sparked a debate locally about European excess deaths among children during the pandemic. It read: “Europe suffers horrifying increase in excess deaths among children since EMA approved COVID vaccine for kids” and linked the high mortality figures of children in Europe to COVID-19 vaccines. The article claimed, “there is a 691% increase in excess deaths among children up to week 33 of 2022 since the European Medicines Agency extended the emergency use authorization of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for use in children aged 12 to 15 in May 2021”.(Here) The misinformation about this article came from people sharing concerns about vaccinations for their children. These conversations included someone asking for guidance from one of the doctors in the group. “My wife needs to give birth any day now. I am a bit sceptical about all these different baby vaccinations. I’m referring to that 6-week injection, etc.” (Here)

COVID-19 Disinformation by doctors. There was high interest locally in an overseas article on doctors giving patients false or misleading information about COVID-19 risks, vaccinations, and treatments and that they now faced “losing their license to practice medicine”. (Here) This led to a discussion about the Health Professions Council of South Africa’s (HPCSA’s) current investigating of a local doctor alleged to have  spread false information about COVID-19 vaccine, (Here) The HPCSA was expected to determine if the doctor’s anti-vaccine interactions could be considered unprofessional conduct. The sentiments included “they are treating it seriously, but nothing has actually come back in over a year” and concerns ifthere are actually going to be any consequences.”

HPV vaccine uptake slows. There was a discussion about how COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy may have affected other immunization programmes. It was highlighted that the HPV vaccination rollout was promising before the COVID-19 pandemic, and there was optimism that uptake would stretch to rural areas. A little over 80% of the learners eligible to be vaccinated were immunized. (Here)  “We are seeing many issues related to low HPV vaccine uptake because of the pandemic.” (Here) The assumption was that misinformation and disinformation since the onset of the pandemic had left people viewing vaccines in general in a negative light, with some parents now unwilling to get their children vaccinated. (Here)

Safety risk of donated blood after vaccination. A report was shared on Telegram about blood donations in South Africa titled; “Collection of blood from vaccinated donors,” and the online engagement focused on vaccine safety risk to blood. The SANBS stated that “it does not defer vaccinated persons from donating nor do they record whether a donor was vaccinated. This is in line with other international blood services. Hospitals and doctors are therefore not able to inform patients whether a unit of blood was donated by vaccinated donor.” The report went on to assure people that SANBS was “confident that the currently approved vaccines do not pose a safety risk to blood.”  (Here)

The engagement on Telegram included that SANBS “are treating blood differently from those who are vaccinated and unvaccinated” that “people who are vaccinated are getting a SMSs to see if they’re still eligible to donate blood” and “I saw somewhere that the red cross asks questions about the vax and that the vaxxed should contact them to find out whether they are eligible to give blood”However, SANBS reacted on its website that there was “no different treatment of vaccinated and non-vaccinated blood.” (Here)

Hesitancy in reporting adverse events. A health worker reported that shortly after receiving J&J vaccine in June 2021 she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) and experienced paralysis from the waist down. The health care worker was advised to report to SAHPRA using the Med Safety App. She said, “I didn’t even think of linking it to the vaccine at the time.” There was some hesitancy on her part in reporting the event.

A discussion in connection with adverse events highlighted that people tend to attribute almost everything that happened to them after vaccination to COVID-19 vaccines. An example was of someone reporting a “broken their leg one month after taking the vaccine saying their bones had weakened because they broke their leg” which would be hard to validate. “That’s been the problem generally, people connecting random things and it’s causing a lot of misinformation.”

COVID-19 Contact Centre. This week’s calls included concerns about vaccine side effects, ranging from headaches to fevers. Some of the callers had already been diagnosed with COVID-19 or suspecting they had the virus. Others were calling for assistance with vaccination certificates, updating of personal information and vaccination codes or to confirm the validity period of the vaccination certificate and whether they should update them annually. There were also few enquiries about PCR testing and whether it was required when leaving and entering the country. The callers were advised that since South Africa has lifted its coronavirus travel restrictions, they no longer need to present proof of vaccination status, or a PCR test.

COMMUNITY FEEDBACK

Westfalia Fruit Farm, Tzaneen in Limpopo has benefited from the grassroot approach to COVID-19 vaccination, which is one of the strategies that boosted South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination drive involving decentralizing the rollout. Provincial health authorities deployed teams to communities to ensure an increased vaccine uptake. The mobile health teams are part of a broader strategy by the country to curb COVID-19 infection. The teams also provided other services such as HIV tests, pap smear, minor ailments, and dental services to more than a thousand workers.

The sentiments included:

  • “When I heard that there is a programme coming to the worksite to give us our COVID-19 boosters, I signed up immediately. I got my first two vaccines in 2021 and this is my third one. My health is my priority,” Wilson Molekoa is a food production manager
  • “I came for the booster. Since I got my two injections, I was worrying why I didn’t have the booster. So now I am happy I got it,” Reggae Malatia,
  • “The great thing about these programmes coming to this side is that you don’t even have to leave your workplace,” he added.

 

MISINFORMATION

MISINFO: Children are dying in increased numbers in Europe because of COVID vaccine. TRUTH: The number of excess death of children form the last half of 2021 and the first half of 2022 have in fact declined. See here.  COVID vaccines have helped prevent deaths of children. See here.

MISINFO: A New variant of COVID Omicron BA2.75 is more infectious and deadly than the current Omicron 5 variant. TRUTH: Only one case in July in South Africa, and not enough known about BA 2.75.  Most cases in South Africa are Omicron 5. See here and here.

MISINFO: Covid vaccines cause heart attacks and inflammation of the heart. TRUTH:  While there are some cases of inflammation of the heart (myocarditis, the risk is very low, see here) there is no evidence to support claims that covid vaccines directly cause heart attacks.  See here.  

MISINFO: Vaccines side effects are being under reported and can kill you. SA Adverse reactions site shows how many have died! TRUTH:  No evidence to support this claim, most side effect are mild and self-resolving. See here, here and here. SA has excellent adverse reporting mechanisms backed by evidence see here for credible local site on adverse reactions.

MISINFO: The second COVID Vaccine death reported by SAHPRA is one of hundreds of those who have died from being vaccinated. TRUTH: No evidence to back up this claim. SAHPRA was transparent because it was the second clearly attributable death. See here and here.  

MISINFO: COVID vaccinations make you more susceptible to serious illness and death and most COVID deaths now are triple vaccinated people. TRUTH: No evidence to support these claims. More people did lose their lives during COVID – due to COVID not the vaccine see here and here and here.

MISINFO: More than half of the pregnant women miscarried during the Pfizer vaccine trial. TRUTH: Not true, the figures released was based on inaccurate data and miscarriage trends were in line with people outside of the trial. See here and here.

MISINFO: People who have been vaccinated are more likely to get seriously il from COVID. TRUTH:  No evidence to support this claim. People who have been vaccinated far less likely to experience severe symptoms. See here and here.  

MISINFO:  Messages saying you have participated in a COVID drug trial asking you to take action to get paid are legitimate. TRUTH: Participation in any legitimate clinical trial in South Africa requires informed consent, and any payments must be approved by an ethics committee and will usually only cover transport. See here for all the policies followed locally and here for informed consent. 

MISINFO: Vaccines cause infertility and erectile dysfunction. TRUTH: No evidence to support these claims. COVID however can impair sexual performance. See here, here and here.

WHO Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA) & Viral Facts

AIRA is the Africa-wide initiative of the World Health Organisation, managing the infodemic of misinformation and communications overload related to Covid and vaccination. They produce the Viral Facts content responding to misinformation which can be used freely. You can find previous AIRA infodemic trends reports on the AIRA page and TechNet-21.

COVID-19 is over

Claims that the COVID-19 pandemic has ended have led to differing narratives regarding the need to continue to need any preventative measures in place, most specifically COVID-19 vaccinations.

What can RCCE do?

Highlight the vaccine’s ability to mitigate severe symptoms and complications from contracting the disease without inoculation, and how it can protect individuals from new strains of COVID that may become prevalent. [LINK], and [LINK]

Vaccines contain mRNA which is leading to an increase in monkeypox

What can RCCE do?

Consistently promote accurate information regarding monkeypox symptoms, transmission, and mitigation methods as communities have expressed confusion about the disease. (Here) and utilize social science research to determine community-specific barriers and enablers for responses to the monkeypox outbreak to enable tailoring of RCCE and other interventions. (Here) and (Here)

 

PROPOSED ACTIONS FOR RISK COMMUNICATION & COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

Adverse events. As more people are reluctant to report vaccine-related adverse events or incorrectly report events unrelated to COVID-19 vaccine, the RCCE will organize more community dialogues to educate the public in line with the objectives of the national vaccination strategy and plans for integrating COVID-19 vaccination services.

Integration of COVID vaccination into routine healthcare services. There was a discussion on whether the integration of COVID-19 vaccination should shift more toward the general health information and health education as part of a broader approach to vaccine hesitancy, as well as concerns about how the integration of COVID-19 vaccination into routine healthcare could impact COVID-19 vaccine demand creation efforts. The RCCE will continue to communicate more integrated information about vaccinations for COVID and other potential outbreaks.

COVID-19 vaccine booster dose campaign. The RCCE and demand creation team will implement a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose campaign, communicate the booster dose schedule, and update the vaccination sites list. The communication Strategy has been developed, presented to the MAC for Social Behavior Change, RCCE technical working group and provincial health communicators.

  

 

METHODOLOGY AND COLLABORATION

The Social Listening & Infodemiology team that produces this report is part of the Risk Communications & Community Engagement Working Group of the Department of Health. This report is compiled following the methodology of the WHO Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA, see here, the “Identify” stage. We pool information from the following:

  • SA National Department of Health
  • Covid-19 contact centre: Reports from the national call centre
  • Org: NDOH Covid-19 WhatsApp system
  • WHO Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA)
  • UNICEF: digital analysis of content on Google, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, and digital news
  • Red Cross: Network of over 2,000 community volunteers reporting misinformation and concerns
  • Real 411 Media Monitoring Africa: a mis- and disinformation reporting and debunking initiative
  • Covid Comms: a network of communications specialists that produces information on the pandemic
  • DOH Free State & KZN: Provincial Departments of Health
  • Community Constituency Front (CCF), Covid-19 Hotline, Health Systems Trust
  • Centre for Communication Impact, Centre for Analytics & Behavioural Change, Section 27
  • Medical Research Council, National Institute for Communicable Diseases,
  • SA Vaccination and Immunisation Centre, HSRC, DG Murray Trust, Right to Care
  • Universities of Johannesburg, Cape Town, Free State, Wits, Stellenbosch, Sefako Makgatho

Other organisations involved Government Communications & Information Service, SA Council of Churches, Clinton Health Access Initiative, Heartlines, Children’s Radio Foundation, IPSOS, People’s Health Movement, and Business for SA, SA Minerals Council, Wits Reproductive Health & HIV Institute, UN Verified, HealthEnabled, Deaf SA, SA National Council for the Blind, Treatment Action Campaign and Disability SA.

The drafting team this week includes Charity Bhengu (NDOH), William Bird (Real 411), Herkulaas Combrink (UFS) and Janine Simon-Meyer (UNICEF). The data for this report was collected by the National Department of Health (NDOH), COVID Contact Centre, Health Systems Trust (HST), University of Free State (UFS) and Real 411. The inputs made during the social listening bi-weekly meeting on 07 October 2022 were considered. The report has been reviewed and approved by Nombulelo Leburu (NDOH).

Contact:

Nombulelo Leburu, National Department of Health              nombulelo.leburu@health.gov.za       082 444 9503
Peter Benjamin, HealthEnabled                                                    peter@healthenabled.org       082 829 3353
Charity Bhengu, National Department of Health                      charity.bhengu@health.gov.za      083 679 7424