In Serbia, supply of COVID vaccines outweighs demand amid mistrust | News on the coronavirus pandemic

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With the third highest inoculation rate in Europe, Serbia is considered a success in the Balkans.
But the country is struggling to find people to vaccinate.

Under Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia has purchased enough vaccines to immunize its population of seven million, but supply exceeds demand amid vaccine hesitancy.

Vucic announced in early March that Serbia had nearly 15 million vaccines, but on March 25, Serbian authorities told reporters that only 1.3 million people had been vaccinated.

Over the past weekend, thousands of foreigners from the region crossed the borders to get free shots in Serbia. In three days, more than 22,000 foreigners were vaccinated.

It was a pragmatic decision.

As Prime Minister Ana Brnabic later said, between 20,000 and 25,000 AstraZeneca vaccines in supplies were due to expire in early April.

But some have criticized the development, including the United Against Covid group, an initiative formed by doctors in Serbia.

In a statement, the association wrote: “The priority should be to organize a vaccination campaign of its own population – which does not exist.”

The group also called on the government to tackle vaccine reluctance, saying it should “systematically fight senseless anti-vaccination positions in government-controlled media.”

Thousands of vaccine seekers from states neighboring Serbia flocked to Belgrade after Serbian authorities offered free coronavirus injections to foreigners if they showed up over the weekend [Darko Vojinovic/AP]

Skepticism about the vaccines being offered in Serbia was so high that in early March Vucic begged people to sign up for the vaccines in a televised address.

“I beg you, get yourself vaccinated.” We have [vaccines] and we’ll have vaccines, ”Vucic said, noting that turnout rates were as low as 9.5 percent in some areas.

Serbian epidemiologist Zoran Radovanovic told Al Jazeera that while Serbia’s vaccine purchases have bolstered leadership ratings, less attention has been paid to encouraging people to accept vaccines.

“We have a populist government that thinks it’s more important not to lose votes [than to secure the health of its population]Said Radovanovic.

“This is why mixed messages are being broadcast by the pro-regime media since access is allowed for both vaxxers and anti-vaxxers.”

Conspiracy theories

According to some analysts, Serbs have the highest rate of vaccine mistrust and the highest number of so-called anti-vax movements in the region.

In February, United Against Covid filed a criminal complaint against Serbian pulmonologist Branimir Nestorovic for violating the code of medical ethics.

As a member of the Serbian coronavirus crisis group, he had disseminated lies about the infection “continuously and persistently” to the public via the media, the association said.

He had called the coronavirus “stupid” – which means not dangerous, and had claimed that people under the age of 40 could not be infected.

In a May 2020 with a newspaper, he called on Serbs, except the elderly, to take to the streets to be infected, saying the outbreak will end on June 15.

Empty chairs are seen in a temporary coronavirus vaccination center in the gym of the medical school, Novi Pazar, Serbia [Zorana Jevtic/Reuters]

According to a report released in December by the Advisory Group on Balkan Policy in Europe, a third of Europe’s population believes in COVID conspiracy theories.

In the Western Balkans, more than 75% of citizens believe in one or more of the six false theories, which often spread across the internet in the form of false information accompanied by dramatic warnings about the dangers of vaccination.

“They find particularly fertile ground in our environment, where general mistrust and xenophobia are rife,” Radovanovic said.

“It’s easy to manipulate a nation that has been deceived for three decades and no longer trusts anyone. Doubt is the natural state of things [here]. Unfortunately, mistrust of the government has spread to all authorities, including doctors, who previously enjoyed general respect. “

Milan-based European Institute of Oncology molecular biologist Marija Mihailovic said campaigns should be launched to encourage adoption.

“Everyone should get a call, not just from one political party, but from all political parties,” Mihailovic said.

“The most sensitive generation is the one born before the technology boom … it is unrealistic to expect these people to register themselves for vaccines,” she said, adding that the provision of vaccines home delivery could also increase rates.

Medical staff arrive to vaccinate residents with Chinese Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine in the village of Leskovik near the town of Nis, Serbia [Marko Djurica/Reuters]

Mihailovic added that some people do not understand the intricacies of vaccine approvals.

“The EMA (European Medicines Agency), which issues EU vaccine permits, comments on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine only when the manufacturer makes a request for the EU market,” said Mihailovic.

‘Therefore, the current lack of EU permits for some vaccines has nothing to do with their efficacy or safety, but simply reflects the fact that these vaccines have not been introduced to the market. EU. These are political and economic issues rather than medical ones, and I think that’s something we haven’t talked about at all.

Meanwhile, coronavirus cases continue to rise in Serbia.

The World Health Organization warned in late March that Serbia has the fifth highest number of cases in Europe per 100,000 population.

Radovanovic said hospitals are full and health workers are exhausted, adding that it is only now that the millionth citizen has received the two doses of the vaccine.

With only 15 percent of the total population fully vaccinated, this was “not enough to seriously affect the frequency of infection.”

Vaccination of 70 percent of the population is necessary to achieve collective immunity, according to many experts.

Radovanovic said it was also important to note that in addition to the reluctance, light lockdown measures – “among the weakest in Europe” – have also contributed to the increase in the number of cases.

” Until [recently, cafes and restaurants] were running at full speed and the ski resorts were operating undisturbed all the time. ”

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