Vaccine rollout communications "confusing": Fiame

Fiame Naomi Mataafa says health Ministry information is "confusing" and failing to reassure the public suggesting its COVID-19 mass vaccination campaign could suffer from the same communications failings as the measles epidemic.

The leader of the Faatuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (F.A.S.T.) party said people across the country are “nervous enough as it is” to accept their COVID-19 vaccine, and believes the Ministry has been delivering confusing messages about who should get vaccinated, when, and where.

She is calling for more clarity from the Ministry of Health (M.O.H.), and said the Ministry looks to be showing the same communication flaws it did after a badly mixed vaccine killed two children in 2018, according to a World Health Organisation report of the event.

“One of the comments they made was the public trust in the system was not helped by very poor [communication] from the health sector,” she said.

“That information flow wasn’t going through and it doesn’t help when people are feeling like they don’t trust the health sector. When we continuously have this information block or poor filtering of information, it doesn’t help.”

She said the Samoan public will respond similarly, with low trust and low vaccine uptake, which will stop Samoa from being able to open up to travel again in the future.

A W.H.O. study into vaccine safety communication found flaws in Samoa’s public messaging after the vaccine incident in Safotu in 2018.

Two babies were wrongfully and accidentally given their measles, mumps and rubella vaccine mixed with an expired anaesthetic instead of diluent. The two nurses responsible are serving a five year prison sentence. 

“… initial attempts to hide the vaccination error and blaming individuals rather than conducting systemic analyses were detrimental to the vaccine programme,” the report into Samoa said.

“The public was not informed of the reasons for the event.

“Appropriate, timely communication with the public is of paramount importance.”

On Saturday, the National Emergency Operations Centre (N.E.O.C.) told the public that after 1979 front line workers received their first of two AstraZeneca doses last week, the mass vaccination campaign for the public can begin.

People will receive their second dose from the second batch of vaccines to arrive, which is expected to be sometime in late May.

The announcement did not follow any previous public statements over who exactly was eligible for a vaccine last week, from the handful of clinics that popped up from Monday to Friday.

The Samoa Observer understands that as well as the border force workers, health workers and the 63 members of the Disaster Advisory Council (D.A.C.), anyone who approached the clinics and met the health criteria was invited to be vaccinated. 

This week there are several clinics open in the Apia Urban Area, with more clinics being opened towards North West Upolu next week, Director General of Health Leausa Dr. Take Naseri explained on Saturday.

Until Saturday’s press conference, Samoa had not been told who exactly was eligible to be vaccinated, though Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Maliegaoi and Health Minister Faimalotoa Kika Stowers-Ah Kau received their vaccines on Sunday 18 April, a week after the official vaccine programme launch where the country was told the programme would be on hold for a while.

“First they said it was frontline people and people over 65, and then they said it was 18 and over but there doesn’t seem to be a strong and regular notification from the Health Ministry,” Fiame said.

 “There is no regular information for the public. It just makes people nervous. 

“People are nervous enough as it is.

“There is a strong feeling that people don’t want to be vaccinated, and I don’t think that feeling is in any way [helped] by not having very transparent and regular information flowing through from the Health authorities.”

Samoa received 24,000 doses of the vaccine on Friday 9 April, and they expire on Monday 31 May. Vaccinators will need to deliver around 500 shots a day to get through the batch on time. 

The Samoa Observer understands this is the reason anyone is able to get the vaccine, rather than the original phased approach proposed by the government to vaccine the elderly and medically vulnerable first (after health workers and border workers).

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