Doctors, Selfie Points Help Fight Vaccine Hesitancy in New Delhi

NEW DELHI – Azhoni Marina had witnessed the havoc wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic up close as she nursed patients in a COVID ward for seven months at New Delhi’s Indraprastha Apollo Hospital. As she waited after her night shift to get her first shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, however, she was apprehensive.

“I heard from so many people that there is lot of side effect, so actually I was a bit worried before I received the vaccine,” Marina said.

However, a sense of relief washed over her when she did not suffer any aftereffects during the half-hour mandatory wait after she got the shot.

“I am now waiting for my second dose,” she said, heading home.

Unlike most countries, for India the challenge is not availability of vaccines as it rolls out a nationwide inoculation drive – there are millions of doses ready in the world’s largest vaccine-producing country.

Since launching the program in mid-January, though, health officials have been battling to overcome “vaccine hesitancy” as people scheduled to take shots failed to show up at inoculation centers.

The waning pandemic in India, health officials warn, has led to a sense of complacency about the need to get vaccines, while initial reports about possible side effects have raised doubts among some. That includes some of the country’s 30 million health and front-line workers, who are first in line to get the shots.

At the Apollo Hospital, doctors ramped up the numbers of inoculations by stepping forward to take the vaccine to allay doubts — the daily numbers of inoculations have grown nearly threefold here.

“People were a bit scared, they asked a lot of questions, we kept on answering their questions and then when they saw that vaccine is quite safe, this helped us in building confidence in vaccines,” said Sanjeev Sharma, a hospital clinical pharmacologist.

From talks by senior doctors, to individual counseling sessions, to selfie points where those who get vaccinated take photos and upload them on social media, the Indian capital has launched several initiatives to persuade people to take the shots.

For Rajesh Kumar Kohli, who worked in the COVID section of the Apollo Hospital for several weeks, getting the vaccine’s first dose brought huge relief.

“Even if something happened to me, I will now be safe,” he said.

However, the decreased sense of urgency about getting inoculated as India’s case numbers dip dramatically is posing a challenge. India is reporting about 12,000 infections a day, compared to about 90,000 at its peak in September.

Indian cities such as New Delhi that were hot spots for the pandemic are fully open. Markets are buzzing, movie theaters and restaurants have opened, the streets are again crammed with vehicles.

The government’s decision to administer a homegrown vaccine, Covaxin, before final trial results become available has also created doubts among some, even though health experts have been reiterating that it is both effective and safe, and leading doctors in the city have taken the shot to instill confidence. This is one of the two vaccines being used at inoculation centers.

Several big Indian states, such as Tamil Nadu and Punjab, have vaccinated fewer than half of their health care workers who are due to be given shots.

Health officials have been constantly reinforcing the message that only vaccinations will end the pandemic, saying the lower numbers present India a with window of opportunity to make sure it is not hit by a second wave, as many Western countries have been.

“Where the footfall is not so good, we are organizing talks by senior consultants, we are involving local people and mobilizers to ask them to come to the centers,” said Dr. Pareejat Saurabh, an immunization officer in Delhi. Those steps have boosted numbers.

India is expected to move to the next phase of its program next month, inoculating those over 50. This may pose greater challenges, though. Even in this vulnerable group, opinion on taking the vaccine is divided, with some saying they are anxiously awaiting their turn and others preferring to “wait and watch.”

“Whenever my turn comes, I will take the vaccine,” said Veena Sawhney, shopping at a New Delhi market.

A shop owner, Rajesh Mehta, however, was more cautious.

“The old should take it. I want my mother to get it. But I am in no rush, my immunity is OK,” he told VOA.

So far, more than 8 million people have been vaccinated – India says it has been the fastest to administer this many shots and plans to accelerate the drive in coming weeks.

Given the massive scale of the task, though, the country with the second-highest number of infections after the United States could fall short of its target of reaching 300 million people, nearly one quarter of its population, by August.

Source: Voice of America