Fears, suspicion cloud vaccine takeup in Cameroon

Yaounde (AFP) – Under a leaden sky, two health workers outside a hospital in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde are doing their best to persuade passers-by to be vaccinated against coronavirus.


It's a tough sell.

"I don't trust the vaccine," says a man named Ramos, aged in his 30s.

"The whites don't like us. They want to kill us with vaccines in which they have slipped in illegal products."

The central African country is one of the hardest-hit states in the continent for Covid-19, recording more than 107,000 cases of infection in a population of some 26 million, of which 1,795 have been fatal.

The caseload is tiny compared with hard-hit Europe and North America -- but the proportions are reversed when it comes to vaccine takeup.

A mere 4.1 percent of Cameroon's population aged over 18 has been vaccinated, even though the first jabs arrived seven months ago, according to the health ministry.

It had set a target of 40 percent at this stage, with an eye on Cameroon's hosting of the massively popular Africa Cup of Nations football tournament, now just five weeks away.

Vaccines have been available in Cameroon for seven months
Vaccines have been available in Cameroon for seven months Daniel Beloumou Olomo AFP

Worries and suspicions about the vaccines remain widespread, despite a nationwide immunisation campaign that unfolded from November 17-21.

Another campaign, from November 10 to December 10, aims at encouraging civil servants to get jabbed.

"The government strongly and firmly encourages everyone to get vaccinated," Health Minister Manaouda Malachie said in an appeal on CRTV state radio.

"We have enough doses for everyone."

'Sterile' rumour

But scepticism is entrenched.

"it's very hard to persuade people," said Lucienne, a health worker who with her colleague Irene approaches passersby outside the small public hospital of Odza, where a vaccination unit has been set up.

The site has been specially chosen with the aim of netting as many people as possible -- the busy street connects with the airport.

One health worker said a passer-by threatened to punch her when she offered them a vaccine dose
One health worker said a passer-by threatened to punch her when she offered them a vaccine dose Daniel Beloumou Olomo AFP

"Cameroonians have a real hangup" about the vaccines, she said.

The previous day, "someone threatened to punch me if I continued to suggest he get vaccinated."

Irene said, "The argument you hear most is that the Europeans" -- a term usually applied to Westerners in general -- "want to kill us."

The two young women ask a female passerby, Jamiro, who also turns down the vaccine.

"I read on the internet that this vaccine makes you sterile and I heard that from people in the street too," she said.

Social media

"The public's hesitation stems from disinformation circulating on social media," said David Messy, who works with the government's Enlarged Vaccination Programme, or PEV.

"Some Camerounians living abroad send messages to people back home, telling them about the supposed risks of vaccination," he said.

Professor Yap Boum II is the regional representative of Epicentre, the research and epidemiological arm of the French medical charity Doctors without Borders, or MSF.

Some government officials blame the spread of disinformation on Camerounians living abroad
Some government officials blame the spread of disinformation on Camerounians living abroad Daniel Beloumou Olomo AFP

"The biggest challenge is ensuring that people have the right information before them, so that they make their decisions on the basis of facts and not just on opinions on social media," he said.

"There are 30 times fewer fatalities (from Covid-19) among vaccinated people compared with unvaccinated people."

In the street outside the hospital, an elderly man who is approached with the offer of a jab, retorts, "You should go and vaccinate Paul Biya," Cameroon's 88-year-old veteran ruler.

Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute and some ministers have gone on camera for their jabs, but whether Biya immunised is unknown.

As the known infection rate of coronavirus infection is so far low, many Cameroonians say it is superfluous.

"I'm not interested in the vaccine because I still haven't seen anyone fall sick" with Covid, said Jeannette Aboudi, a 53-year-old orange seller at a market in Nfou, a small town in the centre of the country.

Yaounde's vaccination centres are often seen empty
Yaounde's vaccination centres are often seen empty Daniel Beloumou Olomo AFP

Others, though, have had first-hand experience -- and, as elsewhere, this is a mind-changer.

Andrea, a young woman in her twenties, said her hesitations melted away after her aunt caught the virus and fell ill with respiratory problems.

"After that, the family decided that everyone should be vaccinated," she said, adding that she had recently received her first dose.