This article is part of IranWire's ongoing coverage of Covid-19 disinformation in different countries, in partnership with Health Studio.
By Shon Osimbo for Health Studio
Kenya received its first batch of more than a million Covid-19 vaccines on March 3. The Oxford-AstraZeneca jabs are now being administered around the country, with healthcare workers and the most vulnerable first in line. But disinformation about the vaccines has left many Kenyans sceptical about their safety.
One prominent source of disinformation is a religious group known as “Kenya Catholic Doctors Association,” (KCDA) which issued an inaccurate and misleading press release the day the jabs landed in Nairobi. The group, which has baselessly criticised shots against polio, tetanus and cervical cancer in the past, said the vaccine was “totally unnecessary” and falsely claimed several drugs had been shown to effectively treat Covid-19.
In fact, scientists have so far found just one drug that can help treat the disease: the steroid dexamethasone. This drug has been shown to help severe Covid-19 cases, and is now used widely across the globe, as Africa Check notes.
Vaccinations, clinical virologist Prof Eftyxia Vardas told the fact-checking service, “are completely necessary to...interrupt natural transmission of this virus.”
The World Health Organization was quick to reject the KCDA’s statement, criticising its “falsehoods and uncertainties,” and explaining that extensive research has shown the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab is safe.
But the statement had already been shared on both news websites and on social media, according to Agence France-Presse.
Days later, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) distanced themselves from the KCDA’s false claims, calling Covid-19 vaccination “an act of charity towards other community members” and “an act of love of our neighbour.”
Bishops said taking the jab when offered was “part of [a Catholic’s] moral responsibility for the common good.” The Most Reverend Anyolo added: “It must be understood that those doctors cannot and should not purport to speak in the name of the Catholic Church.”
But the KCCB has attracted controversy over its approach to vaccination campaigns in the past. Back in 2015, the group boycotted polio jabs over unevidenced claims they could make women infertile, NPR reported at the time.
With some 20 percent of Kenyans identifying as Catholic, such statements can have a big impact on public perceptions of vaccination.
Health Studio spoke to a number of people at Nairobi’s Toi market who have been left confused by the various statements given by different Catholic groups. Some Kenyans linked the KCCB’s previous concerns about infertility and the polio vaccine to Covid-19 jabs.
Vendor Shanzu Maria said: “As a Catholic, we were warned against taking the vaccine as it was said that it can cause sterility in women. I am wondering why the change of tune by our church leadership, wasn’t there enough research before they made such an impactful statement which has caused resistance in the Catholic community to take the jab?”
It’s important to note that neither the polio jab nor the Covid-19 vaccine causes infertility.
Like Maria, other Kenyans have also mistakenly interpreted the conflicting messages from the Catholic doctors group and the KCCB as backtracking from the church.
Vendor Kevin Masinde told Health Studio: “I am wondering why the Catholic church withdrew their earlier sentiments about the vaccine. Were they bribed by the government to say that the virus is no longer dangerous and it will save lives? The fact that there is no clear reason for the change of mind makes me doubt the real authenticity of the vaccine.’’
Rumours aside, clinical trials and data collected from millions of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine recipients show that the jab—which was built on years of published research—has a real, measurable impact on Covid-19. The vaccine, along with a number of others, offers scientifically proven protection against the disease.
The Impact of Disinformation in Kenya
Experts have said disinformation is one of the biggest challenges to vaccine rollouts in African countries like Kenya, which is one of the first in the continent to receive jabs.
Unevidenced rumours have led many Kenyans to hold false beliefs about Covid-19 jabs. Toi vaccine vendor Grace Alaro told Health Studio: “I doubt whether I can take the vaccine considering some of the information I have heard about it.
“First, I heard that the vaccine makes people add weight abnormally—especially women. The other misinformation I have heard is that the vaccine causes infertility in women and I may not be able to give birth to as many children as I want to.”
Peter Musyoka, a cleaner at the market, said that false rumours the vaccine might be part of a conspiracy to depopulate Africa made him nervous to take it. He added he had heard the vaccine might cause impotence in men.
Although Oxford-AstraZeneca can cause some temporary side effects, including a sore arm, nausea and headaches, it has not been linked to weight gain, impotence or infertility. Most side effects are mild and clear up within a few days.
Vendor Martha Oluoch said she was worried the vaccine contained the virus that causes Covid-19 (SARS-CoV-2). But the vaccine in fact uses a modified version of a different and harmless virus to SARS-CoV-2 to build up the body’s defences against Covid-19.
Dr Catherine Kyobutungi, who leads the African Population and Health Research Center, told Voice of America: “There are some conceptions about whether [the vaccine is] safe, whether it was developed too fast, whether corners have been cut.
“But the vaccines have all gone through rigorous trials, their safety and efficacy have been established and the government have put in place the right systems to make sure they are the right thing for the country.”