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.

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KEY TRENDS

 

Interest and engagement on COVID-19 vaccine. Interest in search queries for “vaccination near me” (+5000% compared to previous week), “Pfizer vaccine news” (+300%), and “Covid vaccine side effects” (+100%) rose on Google over the past week. Conversations on Twitter about COVID-19 vaccines in the country generated 2.3k engagements (+190% compared to last week).

There were concerns about the alleged rise of HIV infection during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The rise of HIV infection is getting worse guys, please berekisang di kgotlopo hle” and “It’s so scary. Vaccines we took during COVID have also contributed” and “but you guys are not using condoms and PrEP but act shocked that HIV infections are increasing. Then you blame the COVID-19 vaccine for the increase in HIV infections.”

Engagement on digital news media. Digital news articles about COVID-19 vaccines generated over 1.8k engagements (+15% compared to previous week). Top articles by engagement included (Here), (Here), (Here) and (Here) Conversation on Facebook generated about 1k over the past week (-35% compared to the previous week). There were speculations that a new COVID-19 infection wave ‘appear to be brewing.” and “Vaccine fatigue and confusion over types of available vaccines will likely limit booster uptake.”’

Persisting claims about COVID-19. COVID-19 had become potent or no longer existed, according to the claim. On 12 October 2022, 1 723 new COVID-19 cases and 52 deaths were reported, but some people dismissed the reports as another scare tactic. “Covid still exist, I thought it’s gone(Here) Others said complacency had set in. “In 2020, these figures were considered a national crisis, we were in lockdown.” (Here).

Drop in COVID-19 testing. There were concerns that COVID-19 testing had dropped while the virus continued to mutate and becoming increasingly unpredictable. (Here) and (Here)Enough is enough, we are not going to do the test”. (Here) Others were discouraged by the recent reported deaths. “Why must we test when your vaccine is killing people?” (Here) and said they were “not stupid enough to take that poison”. (Here) The attitudes of these individuals were viewed as an obstacle to uptake of vaccines and booster shots. (Here)

Practical barriers to vaccine access. There concerns that vaccination sites were becoming more difficult to find. “There are now practical barriers to accessing vaccines as the number of sites has reduced, particularly in the private sector where it’s no longer viable to keep vaccination sites open in the way that they were during the mass uptake” (Here)  and “the strategy has now shifted to using routine health services to focus on low-coverage districts. (Here)

Neglecting vaccination. There were claims that COVID-19 vaccination was no longer a priority to many people as it continued to rank low on their priorities. “People are no longer showing up at vaccination sites for primary jabs or booster shots.” (Here) and (Here) They more worried about expenses for food, clothing, and shelter. “We have more important things to stress about like Christmas clothes and back to school expenses after Christmas.” (Here) “Concentrating on alleviating hunger” (Here)

According to the experts, “although we are not where we were one year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic is still not over” and “we all have COVID fatigue – people are trying to get on with their lives after a very disruptive period, and they may believe that protection is no longer important.” (Here) In a country with 44% unemployment and high rates of hunger, “for many COVID-19 isn’t the biggest threat in their lives”.  However, “we need to put COVID-19 into the context of people’s day-to-day realities.” (Here) 

Persisting fear of vaccine side effects. The fear of vaccine side effects or long-term effects continued to be mis-interpreted or overstated. (Here) More people were refusing to vaccinate or return for booster shots because of fear of side effects. “My husband and I got vaccinated after we had contact with someone who had Covid and later we got very ill, and my diabetes is worst after Covid.” (Here) Six people spoke about fatigue, memory loss and other post-Covid symptoms. (Here)

COVID-19 in wastewater. There were concerns raised over the article about the sustained rise of COVID-19 detected in Nelson Mandela Bay waste water. (Here) The Medical Research Council (MRC) monitors have urged people to ensure they were up to date with their vaccinations.(Here) Sequencing data as of 28 September showed that samples had mutations characteristic of the Omicron in Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni and Tshwane, eThekwini and parts of the Eastern and Western Cape. SARS-Cov-2 levels in wastewater was circulating at intermediate levels in Tshwane (Daspoort and Rooiwal WWTPs) and Johannesburg (Goudkoppies WWTP) (Here) and (Here) The National Department of Health is keeping a close eye on the provinces where COVID-19 infections had picked up ‘even though hospitalisations remain low”(Here)

Sporadic measles outbreak. Three laboratory-confirmed cases of #Measles were identified in the Greater Sekhukhune District, Limpopo this week. (Here) Two children had not been vaccinated for measles, while the other child’s vaccination status was unknown. (Here) It was believed the pandemic-related hard lockdown disrupted routine health services and saw a decline in children receiving their scheduled life-saving vaccines. (Here) The sentiments included: “Two weeks ago myself and my daughter and another family member, had measles like it’s doing the rounds(Here)  and “You really make me worried, my niece has warts on the arm and its painful but no fever for now”. (Here) Someone said; “My son got all his injection right up to the age of 12”, and others were concerned about” the damage measles cause to an unborn baby” and encouraged those anti-vax to ensure that their children were up to date with their routine vaccinations. (Here) and (Here)

Cross vaccination. There were some complaints related to vaccines. “I am only eligible for a second jab of Pfizer vax. These have expired. I have tried everywhere, and no one will give me J&J even though countries abroad are doing cross vax. I need this vax in order to join a mission to help children in Africa in November. My entire trip has been booked and paid for and we never expected to run into this dilemma. I am in KZN.” Some people reported that they asked for Pfizer but given Comirnaty. “I was given what I thought was Pfizer – 2 original ones and a booster but the vaccine certificate says Comirnaty which is not Pfizer. I am rather annoyed at the lack of transparency”. (Here) and (Here)

Slight decrease in call volumes. People continue to call in to request alternative vaccination sites as more private vaccination sites had discontinued vaccination. The strategy had shifted to using routine health services to focus on low-coverage districts. Clicks said they no longer had Pfizer vaccines but had Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines to administer to patients. They were not planning to order any more Pfizer’ Those requiring exemption letters were re-directed to the Embassy of the host country. An agent was designated to help download vaccination certificates and to help find vaccination sites using https://findmyjab.co.za/. People were still calling for vaccination codes, update personal information.

NHLS nurses continued to take COVID-19 related calls. The calls included questions on how to access vaccine certificates, post-vaccination health care, COVID-19 test results, vaccine availability and extra booster shots for people with autoimmune diseases. Some people reported that they were feeling ill and wanted to get tested. Those who called to report symptoms not related to Covid-19 were advised to visit the nearest clinic or private doctor. People who called about family members who tested Positive were advised that only people who have Covid-19 symptoms should be tested.

Other health services. A person living in a shared apartment with communal kitchen and bathroom, called for advice suspecting that a housemate had tuberculosis due to persistent coughing. Another one called seeking advice on caring for a dementia diagnosis patient in the family. The necessary information was given on how to provide the necessary home care and to speak to a doctor about the progression of the disease and to join a support group for dementia like hospice.

COMMUNITY FEEDBACK

The SA Red Cross volunteers continued to solicit community feedback through focus groups, door-to-door campaigns, and community radio stations, to address vaccine hesitancy and boost the low vaccination numbers. While promoting vaccination among the undocumented persons and migrant workers in Musina. Limpopo, the volunteers engaged the community on misinformation about the disease, the vaccine, and fatalities connected to Johnson and Johnson. The vaccine deaths had heightened the already prevailing anxiety surrounding vaccinations in the community.

There was also misinformation reported about a new “flu” strain linked to an increase in significant hospitalisations among the unvaccinated or the immunocompromised. Negative attitudes about vaccines were also affecting the monkeypox awareness campaign. An integrated approach with regards to health promotion to educate people about the differences between monkeypox and COVID-19 informs all the community activities.

MISINFORMATION

MISINFO: Long covid is long-term side effects of COVID vaccines.  TRUTH: No evidence to support this claim.  Long covid is caused by COVID not covid vaccines.  See here, here and here.

MISINFO: Children are dying in increased numbers in Europe as a result 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 Omicorn 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, 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

RCCE to encourage stakeholders and partners to continuously share consolidated reports on offline misinformation through the existing community feedback mechanisms. Concerns about other outbreaks such as measles, monkeypox, and polio should also be highlighted and addressed to inform the weekly communication priorities.

RCCE to clarify the link between COVID-19 vaccines Comirnaty and Pfizer BioNTech’ COVID-19 which has caused misinformation on social media. People continue to complain that they were vaccinated with Comirnaty when they had requested Pfizer. The RCCE to address this information gap as part of the development of the weekly communication priorities for COVID-19 vaccines and other outbreaks.

RCCE to publicise active vaccination sites. There are still practical barriers to access vaccines as the number of vaccination sites had been reduced particularly in the private sector because of the low uptake of vaccines. The RCCE to continue publicizing means of accessing active vaccination sites  such as the Hotline 0800 029 999 and FindMyJab and https://sacoronavirus.co.za/active-vaccination-sites/ to confirm the nearest operational vaccination sites.

RCCE to clarify concerns that have been raised by communities about Pfizer vaccine following a hearing in the European Parliament resulting misinformation. RCCE to continue to give information on side effects and how to report adverse events on MedSafetyApp RCCE to continue encouraging communities to take their primary vaccines and boosters.

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 for the report includes Charity Bhengu (NDOH) and William Bird (Real 411). The National Department of Health (NDOH), COVID Contact Centre, Health Systems Trust (HST), SA Red Cross, UNICEF and Real 411 collected the data. The report has been reviewed 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