Norway deaths, social media rumours: Why healthcare workers in Bihar are staying away from vaccines

Nearly 40% healthcare workers scheduled for first 3 days give the jab a miss

By C K Manoj
Published: Thursday 21 January 2021
Why are people in Bihar reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine?
A vaccination centre in Sitamarhi district. Photo: C K Manoj A vaccination centre in Sitamarhi district. Photo: C K Manoj

Dipping enthusiasm among the people towards the ongoing vaccination drive against the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has alarmed the state administration in Bihar.

The state where 1,461 people died of the disease, plans to vaccinate more than 464,000 health workers in the first phase.

On January 16, the first day of the campaign, 62 per cent health workers and doctors who were scheduled to be vaccinated, turned up at the 301 sites. On January 18, the second day of the drive (vaccination was not carried out on Sunday), the figure dipped to 51.2 per cent. On January 19, 50.1 per cent got the jab, according to data by State Health Society, Government of Bihar.

In the three days combined, 47,402 people out of the 74,900 health workers who were to receive the shots — a little over 60 per cent — showed up across the state.  

News of vaccine deaths injected fear

The deaths of 23 persons in Norway after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and at least 580 adverse events following vaccination in India have only triggered fears among Bihar’s health workers.  

Four Covishield recipients have died so far in India. Authorities have denied that the deaths were connected to vaccination.

“There is a panic among health workers after the Norway incidents. People want others to get the shots first to know about the side effects,” a health worker from Sitamarhi district, P Ranjan, told Down To Earth. 

He added the immunisation drive would get a boost if the country’s top politicians, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet, got vaccinated first. Some media reports quoted unnamed sources January 21 that Narendra Modi and the chief ministers would take the jab in the next round.

Stories of post-vaccine health complications doing the rounds on social media has also added to their worries, said Neeraj Kumar, a health worker from Darbhanga. “When vaccines are not successful in advanced countries and taking lives, what's the guarantee that it will protect ours?” he said. 

Some registered health workers said they have more faith in alternative safeguards than vaccines. “I will fight coronavirus with the help of a mask and sanitiser,” said Shambhu Kumar, a health worker in Barachatti block, Gaya.

Kumar, like many of his colleagues, didn’t turn up at the vaccination centre despite getting the text message with the site address and date and time of inoculation. Most of them made up excuses such as they were out of station, unwell, or unable to reach the centres due to the severely cold weather.

'Even doctors don't trust Covaxin'

“Some of our doctors have refused to take the vaccines especially because Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin is still in clinical trial stage and they are not sure about its efficacy,” said Dr Binod Kumar Singh, superintendent of Patna-based Nalanda Medical College and Hospital (NMCH).

If the senior doctors refuse to get vaccinated, other healthcare workers are bound to stay away, he said.

NMCH is one of 16 sites in the state capital and the turnout here slid from 31 per cent on the first day, 28 per cent on the second to 17.46 per cent on the third.

At Srikrishna Memorial College and Hospital in Muzaffarpur, the turnout went from 19 per cent on the first day, 32 per cent on the second day to 11 per cent on day three. Jawahar Lal Nehru Medical College and Hospital in Bhagalpur could achieve just 20 per cent of its target on the third day.

“It appears people are confused about which vaccine is better — Covisheild or Covaxin. So, they are taking longer to decide,” Dr SP Vinayak, district immunisation officer of Patna, told Down to Earth. He added that the fear among health workers on the first day is slowly subsiding.

The confusion has been further confounded by the politicians who speak in divergent tones, said Dr Nalini Kant Prasad, a senior health practitioner based in Muslim-majority border town, Kishanganj. “The common people say they don’t trust the vaccines developed by the country. They ask how we made them so early whereas many foreign countries are still fighting to get vaccines,” said the former district  immunisation officer.

Misconceptions about the vaccines have spoiled the inoculation drive in Nalanda, said the district immunisation officer, Dr Arun Kumar Sinha. “In the past, only the Muslim community avoided the routine vaccination drive in the district. Now, even other communities are not coming forward because of the social media rumours,” he said, adding they have launched awareness campaign and have announced not to vaccinate those who stayed away from the first phase.

In Gaya, 10-15 per cent workers are in the wait-and-watch mode, said civil surgeon Dr KK Sinha. “They want others to get the vaccines first to know if they cause any adverse effect on them,” he said.  

Bihar has been provided 569,000 doses of vaccines. They include 54,900 vials (each containing 10 doses) of Covishield vaccines manufactured by the Serum Institutes of India and 1,000 vials (each containing 20 doses) of Covaxin manufactured by the Bharat Biotech.

In the past three days, 833 beneficiaries got Covaxin doses and over 46,000 got Covishield, according to Bihar’s health department.

Co-Win snags delay drive

State health minister Mangal Pandey clarified that the beneficiaries cannot choose the vaccine candidate. Government officials make the choice based on availability.

Pandey blamed the severe cold waves sweeping the state for the low turnouts. 

The Co-Win portal, a mobile phone application developed by the Centre to register the beneficiaries, also crashed frequently in the past three days, said health officials. Messages carrying place and time for vaccination could not be delivered on time as a result.

“We have been facing frequent problems with the Co-WIN portal which has hampered the vaccination process,” said Khalid Arshad, administrative officer with Bihar Health Society.

The State Health Society, in its new advisory, instructed pregnant women, people allergic to food and drugs and persons below 18 years not to get the vaccines.  

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