Blantrye, Malawi — Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera led a rollout Friday of a push for a second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with a strong call to Malawians to go for vaccination to prevent a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic. The call came a day after health authorities in Malawi announced the presence of a more contagious Indian variant in the country, which has infected 14 people. Despite this, authorities bemoan the continued low vaccination rate.
During a televised event at the state residence in Lilongwe, Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera said he and Vice President Saulos Chilima decided to lead the campaign for a second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine to prove its importance and safety.
He said this also was to dispel misconceptions and fears some Malawians have about the COVID-19 vaccination.
"The AstraZeneca vaccine we are using is a good vaccine whose aim is to protect us from COVID-19. That's why my vice president and I were the first to have vaccinated in March, and now we want to become the first to have the second jab in public. Our aim is that you should be protected, there is no need to fear."
The call came a day after health authorities in Malawi announced the presence of a more contagious Indian variant in the country that infected 14 people.
Despite the announcement of the Indian variant, the administration of the second jab has started in a low-key manner compared to the first dose.
For example, local media reported Friday that some vaccination centers were vaccinating just three people daily.
Health experts say this is largely because of lack of information on the importance of the second dose.
George Jobe is executive director for Health Equity Network.
"Our recommendation is that we need to package special jingles and messages tailored toward the second dosage," said Jobe. "Those [messages] should fly in our media, encouraging those who got their first jab to get their second jab to complete. And we should also show the benefits of completing the dosage."
Jobe also said there is a need to use community structures, like religious leaders and village chiefs, to encourage their subjects to get the second jab.
"What we noted recently, just a few weeks ago as we are getting close to a second jab, the negative information also resurfaced, threatening that people who got the vaccine may die," said Jobe. "So, that probably has had an impact, that's why we need more awareness raising and responding to such negative information."
Malawi got a total 512,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccines in March. The COVAX facility gave Malawi 360,000 doses, the African Union donated 102,000 doses and about 20,000 of those were destroyed last month after they expired. The Indian government donated 50,000 doses.
As of Thursday, only 355,000 doses had been used.
Another health rights campaigner, Maziko Matemba of the Health and Rights Education Program, says the problem is that Malawi has not created a lot of demand for these vaccines, especially for people in rural areas.
This, he says, has resulted in low uptake of the vaccine.
"We have only managed to vaccinate about one percent of the population because we have to vaccinate about 60 percent," said Matemba. "So, for us, I think, the government and members of parliament could have made provisional budget to support the demand creation for the vaccine."
Government authorities say they are now finalizing new awareness messages about the vaccine to help complement its ongoing campaign to encourage people to get the COVID-19 vaccine.