Health outreach workers leaving with megaphones from the village of Lama Mbalo carry T-shirts with the words: “I found my COVID-19 vaccine!”
By then, all of Gibel’s women had heard rumors on social media: Vaccines could stop your blood or cause your miscarriage. Women taking it will not get pregnant again.
Lama Mbalo and his sister-in-law, Fatomata Mbalo, never made the 3.4-mile journey (5.5 kilometers) into the city for their vaccines, but the family kept the free shirts. Its lettering is now well worn by the wash, but the women’s resolve has not softened. They share a lot in common – food preparation duties, babysitting, trips to the well with plastic jugs, and their perspective on vaccines.
“I definitely need a lot of kids,” said Lama Mblo, 24, who has a 4-year-old son, another baby on the way and no plans to get vaccinated after giving birth. And Fatomata Mbilo, 29, struggling to get pregnant for the third time in a village where some women have more than 10 children, quietly insists: “I don’t want to make it worse and destroy my womb.” Do not want to do.”
As health officials in The Gambia and across Africa urge women to get vaccinated, they have faced reluctance among those of childbearing age. Many women worry that current or future pregnancies will be at risk, and in Africa, the success of a woman’s marriage often depends on the number of children she has. Other women say they fear vaccines more than viruses: As breadwinners, they can’t miss a day of work if side effects like fatigue and fever briefly sidestep them.
Their fears are hardly extraordinary, with rumors spreading across Africa, where less than 4% of the population is vaccinated. Although data on gender distribution of vaccines is lacking globally, experts agree that increasing numbers of women in Africa’s poorest countries are consistently missing vaccines. Officials who already lament the disparity of vaccine distribution between rich and poor countries now fear that outright gender inequality means African women are the least vaccinated population in the world.
The story is part of a year-long series describing the impact the pandemic is having on women in Africa, the least developed of the countries. AP’s series is funded by the European Journalism Center’s European Development Journalism Grants Program, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AP is responsible for all content.
“Unfortunately, we see that even though COVID vaccines have long arrived in Africa, women are being left behind,” said Dr. Abdalah Jeeraba, an epidemiologist at the African Population and Health Research Center. “This could mean that they will have to suffer heavy losses during the pandemic.”
Officials say the spread of vaccine misinformation is largely responsible for the gender gap. Delays in obtaining vaccines in poor countries have allowed misinformation to flourish, even in remote villages where few people have smart phones. And with female literacy a challenge across Africa, women have long relied on word of mouth for information.
Despite widespread concerns about pregnancy and fertility, there is no evidence that vaccines affect a woman’s chances of becoming pregnant. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked thousands of immunized women and found no difference in their pregnancy outcomes. The CDC, the World Health Organization and other agencies recommend pregnant women get vaccinated because they are at higher risk of serious illness and death.
In The Gambia, as in many African countries, AstraZeneca was initially the only vaccine available. Widespread publicity of the link between that shot and rare blood clots in women during a failed rollout in Europe backfired on vaccination efforts. Many Gambians believed that the shot would stop their blood from flowing completely, thanks to the poor translation of news into local languages.
Officials also faced deep distrust of the government and the belief that Africans were getting shots that no one else wanted. Rumors swirled that the vaccine was designed to control the continent’s birth rate.
Since then health officials have made considerable progress in vaccinating Gambian women; They are now about 53 percent of those who have jobs, up several percentage points from a few months ago. But there has been a gap between the children of childbearing age, despite how often they are in contact with the maternity clinic staff.
Across Africa, officials report similar trends despite a lack of comprehensive data. In South Sudan, Gabon and Somalia, less than 30% of those who received at least one dose in the early stages of COVID-19 vaccination campaigns were women.
In those countries – poorer countries elsewhere in the world, particularly the Middle East and parts of Asia – women face other barriers to accessing vaccines. Some require their husbands’ permission, or lack the technology to make an appointment, or simply aren’t on the vaccine priority list.
It is not surprising that African women have been left behind, said Dr. Roopa Dutt, assistant professor at Georgetown University Medical Center, but it is necessary to address the problem. “If they don’t get vaccinated at the same rate as men, they will become this pocket for COVID-19, and it will make it more difficult for all of us to get out of the pandemic,” she said.
In The Gambia, many women start their day by lighting a fire to cook breakfast in the morning, so Lucy Jarju wakes up and goes to the river after morning work. He and other women spend hours navigating small boats in open water in search of dinner. Oysters, crab or small fish that are left uneaten will be sold, making up the bulk of their …
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