Is Prayut's Covid jab enough to ease vaccine hesitancy?
Thailand finally saw the first shot of the controversial AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine being administered to Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha last week along with members of the cabinet.
The busy Prof Dr Yong Poovorawan, chief of the Centre of Excellence in Clinical Virology at Chulalongkorn University, was assigned to give the first AstraZeneca jab to Gen Prayut. This event was held to help boost people's confidence about Thailand's national vaccination programme and to provide hope that the Covid-19 crisis can be put to an end soon.
However, when it comes to winning the public's confidence about the country's mass inoculation programme and the fast-tracked Covid-19 vaccines themselves, getting the prime minister to receive the shot publicly after delays might not be enough.
Vaccine hesitancy is nothing new and is associated with poor health literacy as people fail to understand the basic information needed to make appropriate health decisions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) earlier listed "vaccine hesitancy" among the 10 most pressing global health threats in 2019. With the Covid-19 outbreak still wreaking havoc across the globe with countries now seeing a third wave, this threat is becoming more serious than ever.
Thailand's Ministry of Public Health is hard at work promoting the country's mass vaccination programme and ensuring all 63 million doses of the Covid-19 shot will be administered by the end of this year. These 63 million doses mean 31.5 million people will get two doses each.
When the first batch of the Covid-19 vaccines -- 317,000 doses from Sinovac and AstraZeneca -- arrived in Thailand late last month, people were thrilled. Gen Prayut and Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul welcomed their arrival at Suvarnabhumi Airport personally. However, Anutin was the first person in Thailand to get the Sinovac vaccine, not the prime minister.
Earlier this month, only less than an hour before Gen Prayut was scheduled for his first AstraZeneca shot, the director of the Bamrasnaradura Infectious Disease Institute came out and said that the event had been postponed due to concerns over controversial side effects of the vaccine.
Fearing vaccines' side effects is normal, especially when it comes to Covid-19 jabs, which were developed in record time. Vaccine development is an arduous process and normally takes 10-15 years on average, yet, the Covid-19 vaccines took far less time than that.
In Europe and elsewhere in the world, people are opting out of vaccines in general over fears of their side effects and this does not just include the Covid-19 vaccine. Some people choose not to take any type of vaccination available.
Over the past decade, we have all heard claims that vaccines are associated with the development of autism. So, people have become scared and avoid being vaccinated even though it was later proved that there was no such correlation. However, many still strongly believe otherwise.
Therefore, in order to solve the lack of confidence towards Covid-19 vaccines, education is key. Instead of holding promotional events and emphasising how many doses are en route to protect Thais from the problematic virus, all parties involved should start educating and letting people know what kind of side effects they can expect to develop after they receive a shot. Moreover, they should tell them that if those side effects are life-threatening and what the differences between various brands of vaccines are and whether or not they have other options besides those provided by the government, either at private hospitals or elsewhere.
With such comprehensive information about their choices, people can make an informed decision but at the moment, people are blindfolded. The only thing they hear is that many doses are coming and only high-risk groups in the "priority list" will be vaccinated at first.
In this urgent and first phase of the Covid-19 vaccination programme, we have been told that 2 million doses supplied by Sinovac Biotech are being distributed to 13 provinces, including five provinces considered as the country's prime tourist destinations.
We have also been told that in the next phase of the programme, 61 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, plus another 5 million doses of the same vaccine supplied by Siam Bioscience Co, will be administered.
Last but not least, we have been told more doses will later be procured for the entire country.
What we have not been told enough about is whether or not vaccines are safe and why we should opt in.
Of course, being vaccinated against contagious diseases especially in times of a long pandemic like this requires one to be responsible. But who would want to expose themselves to unknown risks? Therefore, why not make the risks known?
What Thailand urgently needs now is vaccine education which would result in vaccine literacy. And when that time comes, we would not need the prime minister or any key figure to win over our confidence.
Arusa Pisuthipan is the editor of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
Deputy editor of the Life section
Arusa Pisuthipan is the deputy editor of the Life section of the Bangkok Post.