A nurse prepares a vaccine for a child in a hospital in Beijing, China. Picture: REUTERS
A nurse prepares a vaccine for a child in a hospital in Beijing, China. Picture: REUTERS

South Africans have less confidence in vaccines and deeper mistrust of public institutions than their continental counterparts, according to a global survey from the UK-based Wellcome Trust.

While the levels of distrust are far lower than those expressed in Western Europe, where there have been major measles outbreaks linked to vaccine hesitancy, the results are a warning light about the potential challenge the government faces in ensuring enough of the population remains vaccinated to prevent disease outbreaks.

Only 82% of South Africans said they thought vaccines were safe, compared to 94% of Rwandans and 91% of Nigerians, according to the Wellcome Global Monitor, which surveyed 144,000 people in 140 countries. The African average was 87%. In Western Europe only 59% of people expressed trust in vaccines.

The survey found vaccine distrust goes hand in hand with low confidence in public institutions. In SA, 32% of people said they had no confidence in hospitals and clinics, compared to 27% in Africa as a whole, and 24% globally. Only 43% of SA respondents said they trusted the government, 51% said they trusted scientists, and 68% said they trusted medical advice from doctors and nurses. Globally, 58% trust the government, 72% trust scientists, and 84% say they have faith in medical advice from health professionals.

“If people can’t get the drugs they need at hospitals, it erodes trust,” said Thumbi Ndung’u, deputy director of Africa Health Research, at the release of the survey’s African results at the World Economic Forum Africa under way in Cape Town, this week.

Uncertainty about the benefits of new medical technology extended beyond vaccines, he said.

“What we have seen with the HIV epidemic in particular is a situation where the science has been ahead of the community in many ways. We have some solutions for this huge problem, but the uptake hasn’t been as great. There is a disconnect between the scientific advances we have made and acceptance by the communities with which we work,” he said.

Vaccines are among the most cost-effective public health interventions, but are threatened by fear and complacency, said pharmaceutical manufacturer MSD’s Priya Agrawal, MD for Africa.

“We see the precursors to vaccine hesitancy in distrust in public institutions,” she said.

Wellcome Trust director Jeremy Farrar said the Ebola crisis in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was a prime example of the devastating public health impact that could be wrought by distrust in science and public institutions.

“We have a vaccine, we now have a treatment, and still the community is not willing to accept the interventions. That is a microcosm of what we face both across the continent and across the world with increasing scepticism about climate change. or the benefits of vaccines which have saved millions of lives,” he said.

DRC is currently experiencing its biggest Ebola outbreak in history. It has reported 3,000 cases and 2,000 deaths since the start of the current outbreak a year ago, and the virus has crossed the border into Uganda.

In a separate development, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a statement on Thursday welcoming Facebook’s announcement a day earlier that it will direct its users searching for information on vaccines to sites run by public health bodies.

Users in the US will be directed to the Centres for Disease Control while those in other parts of the world will be channelled to the WHO. Facebook’s move is a direct response to concerns from governments and public health experts that disinformation and anti-vaccine sentiment have been spread through social media.

The WHO said digital organisations had a responsibility to their users to ensure they could access accurate information about vaccines and health.

“It would be great to see social and search platforms come together to leverage their combined reach. We want digital actors doing more to make it known around the world that #VaccinesWork,” the WHO said in its statement.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za