By Sana Ebrahim
South Africa is currently grappling with a third wave of COVID-19 infections with the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal contributing to more than 50% of the daily increase in infection rate.
The Department of Health is scaling up the vaccination programme with those 18 years and older eligible to receive their jab, as announced by the newly appointed Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla.
As the vaccine targets have increased, many people are asking if mask-wearing should still be compulsory even though they have received the COVID-19 vaccine.
Uncertainty has also set in amid the emergence of new coronavirus variants.
Top medical student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, Mr Mohamed Hoosen Suleman, says that mask-wearing is still compulsory and should be maintained as public health policy.
“We should never let complacency and carelessness drive our behaviour. COVID-19 is still a threat and those who are not yet vaccinated may suffer the consequences of the irresponsible behaviour of the vaccinated,” he says.
Many countries that have previously dropped mask-wearing mandates have now reintroduced it as the highly transmissible delta variant is spreading rapidly in many countries.
Suleman says: “The delta variant is highly transmissible and is becoming the dominant coronavirus variant worldwide. The World Health Organization has placed a strong warning on the delta variant and classified it as a variant of concern”
In July, the South African Department of Basic Education (DBE) identified vaccine hesitancy amongst school teachers as a significant health threat to the opening and operation of schools.
Suleman, who also graduated as a top achiever with summa cum laude in pharmacy 2018, was invited to address the concerns of vaccine hesitancy amongst a group of 45 teachers south of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. Mr Elijah Mhlanga, the DBE Spokesperson, highlighted the importance of vaccination and encouraged educators to voluntarily take the vaccine.
Suleman in his presentation titled, “The need for vaccines, now more than ever” highlighted how vaccination of the population reduces the chances of new variants emerging and spreading. He said that the likelihood of the coronavirus to spread and mutate is higher when majority of the population is unprotected.
“Variants of the virus are more likely to emerge when transmission rates are high. The most infectious variant dominates and takes over all other variants. To limit the chances of variants emerging, we need to vaccinate as many people as we practically can,” says Suleman.
The WHO and CDC strongly advise that preventative measures such as mask-wearing, physical and social distancing and regular sanitizing should still be adhered to as the virus is still actively circulating. These public health preventative strategies are peremptory in order to prevent local outbreaks and transmission of COVID-19.
“The evidence is becoming increasingly clear in that we are now seeing a pandemic confined to the unvaccinated population. Our mortality data show that majority of severe disease, hospitalisation, and deaths come from the unvaccinatedgroups. This again emphasizes the need for scaling up our vaccination efforts and ensuring that the most vulnerable and those at high risk of infection are prioritised for their vaccine.” said Suleman, who is also a member of the student-run simulation of the World Health Organization.
The National Department of Health has also noted with concern a drop in the number of people presenting themselves for their dose. Efforts are currently underway to encourage vaccination nationwide.
Suleman says that clinical trials have quite confidently proven that all vaccines approved are both safe and effective. SAHPRA uses strict guidelines to determine if vaccines meet 3 key criteria of safety, efficacy, and quality.
“Adverse events related to vaccines are extremely rare and people should not allow fake news and misinformation to cloud their judgement on the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Anti-vaxxers opportunistically use these rare adverse events to push forward their agenda which has no basis and space in science”, said Suleman.
South Africa has administeredover9,4 million vaccine doses with over 4,1 million people fully vaccinated. This was through the Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer vaccines. Johnson and Johnson is a single dose vaccine and Pfizer constitutes 2 doses for full immunization.
29 deaths have been reported in people after receiving the vaccine and were investigated by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA). The Health Regulator has confirmed that the deaths were in no way linked to the vaccine and reassured South Africa the vaccines that have been approved have met strict standards.
SAHPRA also said that it will continue to monitor and investigate any untoward event reported to be related to the vaccine.