Malawi’s government says is registering low numbers of teenagers taking the COVID-19 vaccine. This is largely because parents and guardians are reluctant to give consent to have their children get the shot.
Malawi started administering the Pfizer vaccine to children ages 12 to 17 on January 1st to help contain the spread of the coronavirus among children.
Vaccination of teens requires health care providers to seek consent from parents.
Statistics show that fewer than 4,000 children were vaccinated as of Saturday, a figure health authorities said was not impressive.
The low response is blamed on parents refusing to give consent to health workers.
Mailesi Mhango is the district coordinator for the Expanded Program on Immunization in the Ministry of Health.
She says reluctance is more prevalent for children who go to public or government schools, where none of the youngsters has so far been vaccinated.
“For the privately owned schools, the response is better compared to government-run schools. I don’t know why. But for private schools, at least there is a positive response; many schools are booking us. ‘Can you come and vaccinate our learners?’ So, we are going to such schools and vaccinating them,” she said.
Willy Malimba, the president of the Teachers’ Union of Malawi, says it is a non-starter to expect teenage students to get the COVID-19 shot in schools.
“This time around, even when the government can decide to go to school to vaccinate learners, I am sure that school can be immediately closed because the learners, even the teachers will run away, unless they are fully sensitized. Otherwise, they are taking this issue as a negative issue because of the coming of this vaccine; it came with negatives,” he said.
Malimba recounts incidents where students have run away from suspected providers of the vaccine.
“Even myself I have been experiencing some situations whereby I was going to certain schools and when learners saw my car, they ran away and I was told from the head teachers that the learners are running away because they think that we are coming with the vaccine,” he said.
Government statistics show that only about 7.3 % of about 20 million people in Malawi are fully vaccinated, far from the required 60% to reach herd immunity.
The low uptake is largely attributed to myths that link COVID-19 vaccine to infertility and allegations that the vaccine is the government's ploy to reduce the population.
In a statement Saturday, the co-chairperson for the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, Dr. Wilfred Chalamira Nkhoma, urged all parents and guardians to get their children aged 12 years and above inoculated.
He said doing so will protect these children from severe disease and hospitalization, even if they do become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.
Some parents say they are not ready for that at the moment.
Lindiwe Mwale, a mother of three children, two of them teenagers, is among the parents concerned.
She spoke via a messaging application from her home in Chiwembe Township in Blantyre.
“I am a parent who has vaccinated them before [with] other vaccines which are there, but for this one [COVID-19 vaccine] I really would not want to risk them by getting them vaccinated by a vaccine which is currently on trial. After all, the COVID-19 is not greatly affecting people of that age; many of them make it,” she said.
Mwale, who is vaccinated, also says with a drop in cases in Malawi, from about 700 daily cases previously to now 80 cases as of Saturday, she feels the pandemic poses no threat that would warrant vaccination of her children.
Health authorities say they are now planning to meet the parents and teachers and educate them on the importance of having children vaccinated against COVID-19.