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SA vaccination programme has lost momentum, says health department

Newly appointed deputy health miniser Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo says the government's vaccination programme has hit a snag due to hesitancy. File photo.
Newly appointed deputy health miniser Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo says the government's vaccination programme has hit a snag due to hesitancy. File photo.
Image: Thuli Dlamini

The national department of health on Tuesday conceded that its Covid-19 vaccination programme has lost momentum due to vaccine hesitancy.

“The president made a pronouncement a few weeks ago that he would want to see us vaccinating up to 300,000 South Africans per day.

“We were excited when we were sitting at about 275,000 on July 21, but we are now down to about 175,000 vaccinations per day. That is a red light that tells you  something should be happening that is not happening,” said newly appointed deputy minister of health Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo.

In its presentation to the National Council of Provinces’ (NCOP) select committee on health and social services, the department painted a bleak picture of how it was struggling to use all the vaccines the country has secured.

Dhlomo, who is former chairperson of the portfolio committee on health, said initially the country struggled to secure vaccine supplies, but now the department was grappling with vaccine hesitancy. 

“We have targeted age groups that we started with. With those 60 and above, the uptake has been good. We want to accelerate that to about 70% but we are not there yet. In those 50 and above, the uptake has not been impressive and we want to do more than that.

“With those 35 and above, we have not seen a very significant uptake, and that is our worry. 

“In the next two weeks we will open for those 18 and above, and almost every South African will be eligible for the vaccine.”

Providing a snapshot of the vaccine rollout programme, the department’s deputy director-general Dr Nicholas Crisp said: “The biggest challenge is no longer the vaccine nor our capacity because we have more than 3,000 sites on any day. The biggest challenge is driving demand and getting the public past the point where we are now.”

Crisp said the country has “quite a huge amount of vaccines and we are expecting a lot more”.

In total, SA is expected to receive 28,097,300 vaccine doses comprising 19,100,000 Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and 8,997,300 Pfizer vaccines in the fourth quarter. Crisp said the September delivery dates were not known yet.  

Currently, only 12% of the population is vaccinated.

“Our target is to get to 70% of the adult population by the end of the year, but even if we get above 65% we would regard that as a success and then we would push on in the new part of next year.”

Trying to understand vaccine hesitancy, Crisp said what people think and feel about the vaccine was very important.

“Providing information so people are able to make this decision and feel confident they are getting a vaccine that is safe and effective is the starting point,” he said.

While mass communication is important, at the weekend Crisp told the Sunday Times the department did not have a budget for communication.

Another factor, he said, was access to the vaccination sites and general fatigue.

“We have to overcome what we are experiencing, which is fatigue, and people are tired of hearing the same old, same old all the time.”

Crisp said the department was also aware of challenges such as disability and nationality.

“The programme has lost momentum. We need to get that back and we need and we need to keep on with non-pharmaceutical interventions. We need to convey messages to the public that vaccinations are safe and prevent hospitalisation and loss of lives.”