Vaccine misinformation within Muslim communities, including a false belief that the new Covid-19 jab contains animal products, could undermine efforts to immunise the public, a leading doctor has warned.
As the rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine continues, Salman Waqar, from the British Islamic Medical Association (BIMA), told the PA news agency that immunisation programmes have often seen low take-up among Muslims.
This is in part because, until this year, in England and Wales flu and childhood immunisation vaccines did not allow the option of a jab that did not contain pork gelatine.
Dr Waqar, who works as a GP in Berkshire and academic researcher at Oxford University, said misunderstandings around the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine — which does not contain any animal products — have been caused in part by poor communication from public health bodies.
“We are paying the price for that now because people are saying ‘Oh, vaccines have gelatine’, or they are just not interested in listening to us,” he said.
A survey of parents and guardians in England, carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Public Health England, found those from ethnic minority backgrounds are almost three times more likely to reject a Covid-19 vaccine for themselves and their children than people from a white background.
However, the survey did lack proper representation from ethnic communities, with 94% of respondents self-reporting as white, compared with 86% of the English population.
Concerns about the speed and efficacy of the vaccine are not specific to Muslim communities — following the announcement of the new jab, there was a surge of misinformation shared online including around the used of aborted foetus cells.
“There is the usual stuff that is in the spirit of anti-vaxxers, but it has picked out certain bits that are particularly triggering within Muslim communities,” said Dr Waqar.
Prioritisation of people with underlying health conditions should provide greater vaccination of ethnic minority communities, and BIMA has put out a statement encouraging at-risk individuals to get vaccinated.
Dr Waqar said it is important that this message is amplified by “key trusted messengers”, including imams and Muslim medical professionals.
However, issues around the Government’s handling of the pandemic — including PPE shortages and the Dominic Cummings saga – make it “very difficult for you to look at your community and say ‘You’ve got to trust what these guys are saying, they know their stuff’.”
People from ethnic minority communities have been disproportionately affected by the health crisis, experiencing higher rates of infection and mortality.
PA analysis found 60% of frontline medical staff who died during the pandemic were from black, Asian or other minority ethnic backgrounds.
“As a result of that, historic inequalities and issues … it’s not surprising that, when the same channels are being used to encourage people to do anything — whether it’s socially distance or take the vaccine — those messages, they’re just not quite penetrating into these communities,” said Dr Waqar.
“This isn’t in a vacuum, it isn’t that these communities aren’t playing ball when it comes to Covid. These communities haven’t been tapped into, there hasn’t been enough effort over the years.”
The Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) has also been working to combat Covid disinformation.
“The potency of social media in the context of spreading misinformation and myths is a factor affecting Muslim and other communities nationwide,” a spokesman for the MCB told PA.
“There is a very useful verse from the Koran which we have used in flyers about fake news, which urges Muslims to investigate information received ‘lest you harm a people out of ignorance and become, over what you have done, regretful’.
“We’re linking our faith and teachings as Muslims to common challenges we face today, such as becoming a victim of fake news and spreading it around.”
The Women and Equalities Committee said inequalities in health, employment, housing and access to Universal Credit has created a “perfect storm” of factors and exacerbated the impact of coronavirus on ethnic minority communities,
The committee raised concerns that current Covid-19 guidance is not culturally competent, hearing evidence that, where information is available, it is not sufficient, and is just guidance written in English translated into other languages — with a limited understanding of cultural nuances.
Committee chairwoman Caroline Noakes said: “The success of a mass vaccination programme will rely on clear guidance and information reaching everyone.
“The Government must ensure that communication is targeted and designed for different communities and disseminated in a manner which encourages trust.”
Professor Wei Shen Lim, Covid-19 chairman for the Government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said: “Tailored local implementation to promote good vaccine coverage in BAME groups will be the most important factor within a vaccine programme in reducing health inequalities.”
Nadhim Zahawi, the Government minister responsible for Covid vaccine deployment, said the NHS will be “working closely” with BAME communities to support those receiving the vaccine.