By Jessie Taylor
The opening of the national vaccination drive to all those older than 18 promises to give the country’s fight against Covid-19 a boost.
The vaccination programme, which started in May, has been vaccinating according to age groups. This strategy is based on prioritising those most vulnerable to contracting severe cases of the virus, need hospitalisation or die. However, the programme will now be open to anyone older than 18, allowing youth to access vaccines across the country.
This move could potentially change the trajectory of the pandemic in the country, with youth a key sector for fighting the Covid-19. Not only are they the most mobile age group – and therefore at risk of spreading the disease – they also have the opportunity to influence older relatives to get vaccinated.
The further opening of the vaccination programme to this age group will make an additional 17 million people eligible for vaccination. Those older than 18 were able to register and receive a vaccination from 20 August, after the date was moved forward from 1 September.
With the government needing to fully vaccinate around 30 million adults to reach the target of inoculating 70% of the adult population to protect the country against future waves of Covid-19, including the new age cohort will go a long way in bolstering vaccination numbers.
At the time of opening the vaccination programme to all adults, the government had already fully vaccinated close to five million people, with around eight million people partially vaccinated.
The opening up of the vaccination programme comes after several weeks of decreased vaccine demand. This despite vaccine hesitancy decreasing, according to a recent study by the Centre for Social Change survey at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). The study found vaccine acceptance rates had increased overall to around 72%.
However, the rate had dropped among the youth. In the 18 to 24 age group, only 55% showed vaccine acceptance between June and July this year, compared to 62% in December and January. Among students, vaccine acceptance sat at 58%.
Increasing access to vaccines will also benefit tertiary education institutions, as more than 700 000 tertiary students will now be able to vaccinate against the Covid-19 pandemic and serious illnesses. This will, in turn, reduce disruptions in learning at tertiary institutions.
Changing the trajectory of the pandemic
Ensuring youth have access to vaccines could change the pandemic’s trajectory, says Professor Ramneek Ahluwalia, CEO of Higher Health. Higher Health is the health, wellness and development agency of the Department of Higher Education’s post-schooling education and training sector.
“The youth will decide the trajectory of this pandemic in the African continent and the world because young people are the biggest carriers of this virus,” he says.
“By opting to be vaccinated in large numbers… youth can stay healthy, protect those who are older and help reduce the risk of mutations that produce new and possibly more dangerous Covid variants.”
The youth also have the potential to influence their older relatives to receive their jab, says Ahluwalia, and increasing the number of those vaccinated could help reduce the impact of the next wave.
Along with increasing the vaccination numbers, opening up the programme to all adults over 18 would go a long way towards streamlining the process, says Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla.
“The benefit of opening up early among the 18 years plus is that now we can say all the vaccines have been certified to be safe and all these adults can be vaccinated. We can now cut out administrative and bureaucratic red tape because as long as you have an ID which means you are over 18, you can be registered,” he says.
In addition, vaccination at workplaces can now take place without the hindrance of age differentiation. Opening up the vaccination programme to all adults also means that travellers for business or educational purposes would no longer require approval for an advanced vaccination.
Not only will the increased number of adults now eligible for a vaccine move the government closer towards its target of immunising 70% of the population, but it will also allow for a more streamlined vaccination programme. Eliminating red tape in the vaccination programme will benefit workplace vaccination drives and tertiary institutions, which will reduce the impact of the next wave of the pandemic.
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