The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said only one in four health workers in Africa has been fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus.
The WHO Regional Director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, while speaking during a virtual press conference on Thursday, said the figure represents 27 per cent of health workers on the continent.
Ms Moeti noted that the failure of health workers to get vaccinated leaves the bulk of the workforce on the frontlines against the COVID-19 pandemic unprotected.
She said analysis of data reported from 25 countries finds that since March 2021, 1.3 million health workers were fully vaccinated, with just six countries reaching more than 90 per cent, while nine countries have fully vaccinated less than 40 per cent.
She explained that a recent WHO global study of 22 mostly high-income countries reported that above 80 per cent of their health care workers are fully vaccinated.
“The majority of Africa’s health workers are still missing out on vaccines and remain dangerously exposed to severe COVID-19 infection.
“Unless our doctors, nurses and other frontline workers get full protection we risk a blowback in the efforts to curb this disease. We must ensure our health facilities are safe working environments,” Ms Moeti said.
Ms Moeti said it is necessary to have high vaccine coverage among health workers not only for their own protection but also for their patients.
She said this will also ensure health care systems keep operating during a time of extreme need.
She explained that Africa’s shortage of health workers is acute and profound, with only one country in the region having the required health workers (10.9 per 1000 population) to deliver essential health services.
“Sixteen countries in the region have less than one health worker per 1000 population. Any loss of these essential workers to COVID-19 due to illness or death therefore heavily impacts on service provision capacity,” she said.
The WHO official further disclosed that since March 2020, there have been more than 150,400 COVID-19 infections in health workers across Africa.
She said this accounts for 2.5 per cent of all confirmed COVID-19 cases and 2.6 per cent of the total health workforce in the region.
“Five countries account for about 70 per cent of all the COVID-19 infections reported in health workers: Algeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe,” she said.
She explained that the risk of health worker infection rises whenever cases surge, a pattern that has been observed during the previous three waves of the pandemic.
She said with a fourth wave likely to hit after the end-of-year travel season, health workers will again face risks amid low vaccination coverage.
“With a new surge in cases looming over Africa following the end-of-year festive season, countries must urgently speed up the rollout of vaccines to health care workers,” said Moeti.
According to WHO, the low vaccination coverage amongst health workers is likely due to the unavailability of vaccination services, especially in rural areas, as well as vaccine hesitancy.
The global organisation noted that recent studies found that only around 40 per cent of health workers intended to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Ghana and less than 50 per cent in Ethiopia.
The international agency said concerns over vaccine safety and the adverse side effects of the vaccines have been identified as the main reasons for health workers’ hesitancy.
It noted that health workers are key sources of information for the general population and their attitudes can influence vaccine uptake.
“The COVID-19 vaccine stands among humanity’s extraordinary scientific feats. In Africa, we’re gradually overcoming supply constraints. Now is not the time to stumble over vaccine mistrust,” Ms Moeti said.
Till date, more than 227 million vaccine doses have been administered in the African region.
Ms Moeti noted that in 39 countries that provided data, 3.9 million doses have been given to health workers. She said vaccine shipments have been on the rise over the past three months.
“Africa has received 330 million doses from the COVAX Facility, the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, and bilateral agreements since February 2021.
“Of these, 83 per cent have been delivered since August alone. As vaccine supply picks up, addressing uptake bottlenecks and accelerating rollout become more critical,” she said.