Until the COVID-19 pandemic provided an opportunity for anti-vax sentiments to take root, accessing free vaccinations in the public health system was never an issue in this country.
No one questioned the Extended Programme on Immunization (EPI), one of the long-standing success stories of the Ministry of Health, which has made free vaccines available to every citizen.
There had never been even a murmur about parental rights being violated by the requirement for every child to be inoculated against a range of diseases, from polio to whooping cough, before being allowed into the public school system.
The EPI, a joint effort with the World Health Organization (WHO and Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), faced few hindrances over the years in its quest to ensure that every child in T&T is immunised against vaccine-preventable diseases.
But this year, ably supported by some in positions of influence across social media, pulpits and even at grassroots levels, anti-vax misinformation has gained considerable traction, endangering the comprehensive programmes put in place here to fight COVID-19
The Government is now faced with the task of giving away thousands of close-to-expiration doses of COVID-19 vaccines to other countries, even as public health officials battle the high levels of misinformation and ignorance that has left T&T still at the mercy of the coronavirus.
Yesterday, with another avoidable pandemic milestone surpassed—more than 1,400 deaths from COVID-19—medical professionals embarked on an arduous task at the Ministry of Health pandemic news conference to try to convince parents and guardians to get their children vaccinated.
One would think that the assurances of a medical professional of the calibre of Paediatric Emergency Specialist and Regional Emergency Coordinator for the North Central Regional Health Authority, Dr Joanne Paul, would be sufficient. Her appeal for children in the 12 to 18 age group to be vaccinated should be heeded, particularly as those who have so far had one or two doses of Pfizer have had only mild side effects.
Weighed against the risks of contracting COVID-19 and ending up in an ICU or worse, it should not be that hard to convince parents and guardians to make the right choice for their children, but it is.
And just in case the words of that respected and experienced physician weren’t enough, there was the assurance from Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram who said the immune response to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in children here has been almost 100 per cent.
Meanwhile in Jamaica, our Caribbean neighbours to the north, 11 children have died from COVID-19—a sad scenario that can be avoided here if children are vaccinated.
Unfortunately, none of T&T’s public health professionals, despite all their medical training and experience, have the social media reach or influence for their life-saving advice to go viral. Instead, that power resides with some who are spreading unhealthy misinformation to the masses. This past week served up a sad reminder of that fact.
A positive influencer is the kind of support the Ministry of Health urgently needs to help push our vaccine-hesitant citizens in the right direction. Is there anyone like that out there?