More than 16,000 expired AstraZeneca Covid-19 doses are to be destroyed in Malawi as concerns over vaccine hesitancy increase.
The vaccines are among 102,000 doses donated by the African Union (AU) to the Malawian government last month.
Health campaigners are concerned that the possible link with rare cases of blood clots and rumours that people were being given out-of-date doses of the vaccine were putting people off coming forward.
Currently, about 230,000 doses have been administered, enough to vaccinate nearly 1% of the population. As well as doses from the AU, the country received more than 400,000 AstraZeneca shots from Covax and the Indian government.
Initially, Malawians responded to the vaccine enthusiastically, with long queues at vaccination points and hospitals since the rollout began last month. But numbers have dropped off.
“From what I know, vaccine hesitancy has contributed to reduced uptake,” said Dr Ben Chilima, director of the Public Health Institute of Malawi. “I know some people did not go for the vaccine because of the hesitancy. There are some people who hesitate because they want to understand, other people because of religion and some people who simply think, ‘I will go tomorrow’.
“In the last week, people were also spreading messages that they will receive the expired vaccine, causing damage to the effort of the government.”
News that the AU has decided to halt plans to procure the AZ vaccine has not helped, despite it insisting the decision was not linked to concerns over blood clots.
George Jobe, executive director of Malawi Health Equity Network, said: “We wished all the vaccines had been administered to Malawians, so we’re very concerned.
“In the country, especially in rural areas, people are still clinging to the negative information about the vaccine. We should remember that there has been misinformation on the vaccine, and now we’ve experienced the danger of such messages.”
Jobe said people should follow expert advice, and not listen to rumours.
“This is a lesson to our donors that when giving donations, they should consider how prepared the nation is. Are people aware and ready to get the vaccine? The next vaccinations should not come within a few weeks before the expiry date because the same things will be happening,” he said.
The ministry of health has assured people that it will dispose of all expired doses.