Tanzania: Experts want clarity on spread of Delta variant as vaccination roll-out starts

By Abdul Halim, in Dar es Salaam
Posted on Thursday, 5 August 2021 10:22

Tanzania's President Samia Suluhu Hassan receives her Johnson&Johnson vaccine at State House in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania July 28, 2021. REUTERS/Emmanuel Herman

Despite a late start, Tanzania is trying to catch up with others in slowing down the spread of Covid-19 through its vaccination campaign. But one epidemiologist tells The Africa Report that Tanzanian authorities are underreporting the number of delta variant cases that are on the rise.

On 28 July, Tanzania launched a vaccination campaign after a long period of denial that the vaccine is dangerous. President Samia Suluhu Hassan officially initiated the roll-out campaign by receiving her jab. While doing so, she reminded the country of 60 million people that Tanzania is not an island and urged Tanzanians to also get vaccinated.

“I would not be able to take a vaccine if it was not safe because many people follow me as a president, mother, grandmother and commander in chief. I am satisfied that the vaccine is safe and effective, she said at State House Dar es Salaam.

In a Twitter message, The US Ambassador to Tanzania Donald Wright termed the president’s action as an “historic moment that hopefully marks the turning of the tide against the Covid-19 pandemic in Tanzania.”

But in various parts of the country, people are showing mixed reactions to taking the vaccine despite the government’s move to distribute doses in all 26 regions.

Kundi Abdallah, a Mwanza resident tells The Africa Report that he believes the vaccines are safe and wants others to get vaccinated as well.

“The government cannot risk the lives of Tanzanians by importing dangerous vaccines. I urge my fellow Tanzanians to also accept it since it met all criteria of the World Health Organization.”

But others are still doubtful.

Under the presidency of the late John Magufuli, vaccines were deemed a suspicious creation of the west.

In a speech back in January this year, he said: “If the white man was able to come up with vaccinations, then vaccinations for AIDS would have been brought, tuberculosis would be a thing of the past, vaccines for malaria and cancer would have been found.”

That type of thinking continues to persist among his supporters, such as Silvia Mwageni.

“I am still worried. I can’t take it because it took a few months to produce. The government should wait for some period of time before importing it.”

The country under-reporting Delta variant cases

The health minister has urged citizens to strictly observe health protocols while in public areas, cleaning hands, wearing masks and the government also opened 550 vaccination centres across the country.

The President of the Tanzania Medical Association MAT, Shadrack Mwaibambe has commended the government’s move insisting that public awareness is needed.

“We as health experts will play our part, the government and all stakeholders such as the media should work together to educate people on the importance of vaccines, Tanzania is not an island as the president said, no one is safe until everyone is vaccinated. We can only defeat this pandemic through multi sectoral cooperation,” he tells The Africa Report.

Since the roll-out of the vaccination campaign, Tanzania has reported fewer cases of the Delta variant, a move that experts say are fuelled by several factors.

Since the Delta variant hit Tanzania early this year, the country has recorded 1017 cases with more than 30 deaths.

The Africa Report spoke to an Epidemiologist at the Muhimbili National Hospital who asked to not be named.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Africa Report: Why are there few cases of the Delta mutation in Tanzania?

Epidemiologist: This is because the country’s testing capability is low in the sense it is making it difficult for us to trace people who are at risk and to determine how to control or stop the spread of the virus. Despite the government showing concern to fight the pandemic, little money has been invested.

Last year, Tanzania stopped releasing data on what the late president John Magufuli said was scaring people.

Could this be because of slow Covid measures?

Certainly yes, since the country was in the state of denial for a long time people were not taking any precautions like wearing masks and practicing social distance. In the crowded city of Dar Es Salaam we were seeing and still see people not observing any health protocols. So I can say our people’s behaviour led us into these circumstances.

The World Health Organization on its official website indicates key measures to protect yourself and others from COVID-19. Those measures include keeping rooms well ventilated and cleaning your hands.

Can these infections be caused by a slow roll-out of vaccination?

It’s only one week since the vaccination campaign started but I believe infections were there even before this process started.

What I believe now is that since the government stance is science-based, experts will be free to exercise their duties by tracing the infections, and we are now encouraging people at risk to take vaccines and help our people to control the spread of this dangerous virus.

Can this be attributed to the lack of action under Magufuli?

Absolutely correct. The late Magufuli played a crucial role in undermining expert’s capability to fight the pandemic, [even though] he himself came out and announced that [a goat and] the pawpaw tested positive for the virus.

He deteriorated the status of experts by declaring that the country was coronavirus-free [following] three days of prayers. We [the experts] were in trouble because his government was in [a state] of denial. Many Tanzanians still believe that Covid-19 does not exist in our land.

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