Vaccines as game-changer in fighting coronavirus

April 3, 2021
A Kenyan health worker administers the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine to colleagues to help fight coronavirus at the Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi on March 5, 2021. PHOTO | FILE

It is without a doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted lives globally. Aside from the adverse effects of the ailment on physical health, its prevention measures, linked to social distancing, have led to isolation, severing close relationships that people previously had.

Brenda, a thirty-five-year old sales representative in Nairobi, knows only too well the agony that these broken ties have caused.

“My mum stays upcountry but we always spend time together during the Easter and Christmas holidays. We last visited her in 2019 December before the pandemic began. But we were unable to do so in 2020 and this year as a precautionary measure to avoid risking her life,” she says.

“It hasn’t been easy. Yes, we call each other but it’s not the same. She used to love spending time with her grandchildren during the holidays but that’s not possible now. And it’s really making her feel lonely.”

Brenda’s story resonates with many Kenyans who have been separated from their loved ones as a result of the pandemic’s containment measures — be it avoidance of physical contact or lockdowns.

Just like many other Kenyans, Brenda is hopeful that the new Covid-19 vaccines will help to address this challenge and facilitate a return to normalcy.

“I can’t wait to go back to the days when we were free to hug loved ones and have gatherings like weddings, graduation ceremonies, baptism parties and family get-togethers. They allowed us to really connect with loved ones and be joyful,” she says.

For decades, vaccines have made great contributions to global health, protecting people and children from a myriad of diseases that would otherwise endanger their lives such as small pox, polio, pneumonia, diarrhoea, cancer, and Ebola.

It is during pandemics such as the current Covid-19 challenge that we are reminded of the important role that vaccines play in our lives, by enabling us to stay healthy and connected with our loved ones.

This is in line with this year’s World Vaccination Week (April 24 – 30) theme Vaccines Bring us Closer.

Health experts note that the theme reiterates the significance of vaccines to both the physical and social well-being. It also offers hope that the world will triumph over Covid-19.

Dr Catherine Kyobutungi, the Executive Director of the African Population and Health Research Centre, notes that during pandemics vaccines safeguard human health by making it possible for affected populations to achieve ‘herd immunity’ faster.

The goal is often attained when most of the population become immune to an infectious disease like Covid-19.

This provides indirect protection to those who are not immune to the disease.

Under control

For example, if 80 percent of population is immune to a virus, four out of every five people who encounter someone with the disease will not get sick. They will therefore not pass the disease to others. This ensures that the spread of disease is kept under control.

With the limited quantity of vaccines within its reach at the moment, the government’s target is to vaccinate about 30 percent of the Kenyan population with the Covid-19 vaccine by 2023.

The figure is still way below the estimated threshold for attaining herd immunity for the virus, which is estimated to be higher than 70 percent.

A million doses

Kenya imported 1.02 million Covid-19 doses in the first phase that focuses on giving frontline workers like medical personnel, teachers and the police the jab.

Also getting priority in this round of injections are people aged 58 years and above.

This is why it is important for people to continue wearing face masks and adhering to other Covid-19 measures even after they get vaccinated.

It is worth noting that the vaccines offer protection against severe symptoms of the disease but not against infections.

Therefore, people vaccinated can still be infected with Covid-19.

But since their bodies will be immune to the virus as a result of the vaccine, they are likely to exhibit minimal or no symptoms of the coronavirus disease at all. Many may not even be aware that they are infected.

They, therefore, risk spreading the disease, unknowingly, to the remaining large part of the unvaccinated population who will be adversely affected by the disease.

Adherence to Covid-19 prevention measures by everyone reduces such risks.

Despite the limited access to vaccines for most African countries such as Kenya, Dr Kyobutungi notes the strategy aimed at giving priority to high-risk populations and essential service providers is really helpful.

High risk individuals such as the elderly and people with underlying conditions — like hypertension and diabetes — are more likely to suffer from severe symptoms of coronavirus disease and even die when they get infected, compared to other people.

Vaccination shields them from these adverse health effects, while cushioning their families and friends from the excruciating pain and emotional torture of losing loved ones.

“Vaccinating individuals likely to develop severe Covid-19 also prevents the health sector from becoming stretched and overwhelmed, since cases of admission requiring intensive care unit (ICU) and oxygen will drastically reduce. This will free up hospitals and allow health workers to offer care to people suffering from other ailments too,” she says.

The priority given to health care workers also helps in ensuring the continuity of their services as it allows them to work effectively without the fear of contracting the disease and dying from it.

Other essential service providers like the teachers and the security officers also enable countries to continue ‘functioning’ amidst the pandemic.

Even though not all people can get access to the vaccine currently, Dr Kyobutungi states that targeting high risk populations and continued adherence to the Covid-19 prevention guidelines will play a key role in reducing infection rates, thus allowing the economy to keep going as Kenyans and other African nations wait to attain the herd immunity.

“The vaccines also help in halting the emergence of new Covid-19 variants that can be more lethal and devastating,” says Dr Kyobutungi.

As we prepare to deal with future pandemics, she states that African nations need to strengthen their capacity to develop and manufacture vaccines.

“This will make it possible for us to get enough vaccines for our populations much faster. Right now, we just have to depend on what is available as countries with the ability to do so are prioritising their citizens.”

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