Doctor Speaks: Vaccine Hesitancy in Kashmir- Myth Or Reality?

Dr. Shahnawaz B Kaloo

Srinagar: After the government equated the dosage shortage with vaccine hesitancy in Kashmir, the chorus around official Covid response is only growing—with many stressing that the experts in the field should be given the charge to lead and interact with the public on mass-media platforms.

The assertion came a day after Kashmir Observer carried an exclusive official data story blaming jab hesitancy for the valley’s slow vaccine rate.

Earlier, Kashmiri netizens decried the dosage disparity between Jammu and Kashmir, asking: “Where are the vaccines?”

Many Kashmiri journalists say, Kashmir valley’s vaccination drive literally halted on May 15, 2021, followed by “zero doses administered in Kashmir” on May 16.

While the government says it’s stockpiling supplies amid “vaccine hesitancy”, many in Kashmir assert: “Hesitancy doesn’t mean hospitals should remain devoid of critical doses.”

Amid competing pitches, the frontline workers are bearing the brunt by holding the fort, while commoners are facing Covid curfew on their way to health centres “running dry of doses”.

To understand what the government calls “vaccination hesitancy” in Kashmir valley, Kashmir Observer spoke to Dr. Shahnawaz B Kaloo of Max Hospital, New Delhi. Dr Kaloo’s celebrated superman avatar during the first phase of the pandemic last year had become a twitter sensation.

How much of this vaccine hesitancy is real?

Well, vaccine hesitancy is not new and dates back to smallpox vaccination.

However, during the current pandemic, the misinformation is tremendous especially on social media. This has worsened the situation.

Since you’re very active on social media, do you see any role of misinformation in shaping up of this hesitancy?

Unfortunately, social media has worsened the misinformation problem. Conspiracy theorists are getting huge public attention and this has led to chaos. The social media platforms are yet to provide a method to report and flag unscientific or false information.

It’s need of the hour that social media platforms provide a methodology to flag such misinformation.

What most common safety concerns do the vaccine hesitant/skeptics have?

The concerns are many and mostly ill founded.

How does this hesitancy pose a threat to herd immunity and complicate this fight against Covid-19?

The vaccine is our strongest weapon against this pandemic. And we must work towards eradication of this pandemic with vaccination. Otherwise, this health emergency may stay for many years to come.

Vaccine hesitancy may not necessarily be vaccine refusal and there may be some legitimate concerns about the vaccine. What are some of these genuine concerns that must be addressed at an earliest possible?

The data from clinical trials should be made public for every vaccine. Plus there should be a national registry of the post vaccination side effects if severe. This will help us to improve and get a better understanding of the issue.

There are people who believe that the major side-effects of vaccines usually occur within weeks or months after vaccination. What is your take on this?

See, we’ve two options – Covid disease or Covid vaccine. We must choose vaccines among these two.

By far, let me tell you, vaccination has been the most remarkable discovery of modern medical science. The long-term effects of this particular vaccine are not available, but theoretically and based on experience from the other vaccines in the past, this vaccine appears to be safe.

Also, we can counter argue that we don’t know the long-term effects of Covid disease.

As you said there are many myths around vaccination that are contributing to this hesitancy, what strategies would you suggest to debunk them?

It’s the duty of community leaders, religious figures and social media influencers to spread correct information and help fight the misinformation.

Also, we must address genuine concerns of the public regarding vaccines in a healthy and non-confrontational way.

The experts in the field should be given the charge to lead and interact with the public on mass-media platforms.

Are there any pure risks associated with these vaccines and if yes, how can we treat and minimize those risks?

The risks are minute and rarely severe. Compared to the risk associated with Covid disease, the risk looks even more negligible.

Also, we must understand that any medicine or drug however safe can have side effects.

But we take them conferring the risk versus benefit ratio. Same is the case with vaccines. The benefit far outweighs the risks associated.

How important is it to work on this hesitant group and how can we address this reluctance and skepticism?

As we provide the correct information the hesitancy will go away. We must lead by example. All those taking vaccines should share their experiences with others.

Doctors and healthcare professionals have a great role to play. They’re fighting this pandemic at forefront and also understand the science behind the vaccine. If their expertise is properly utilised, the misinformation can largely be overcome.

Thing is, it’s many months since people got the vaccine and this amount of time should be enough of “wait and see”.

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