BY MIRIAM MANGWAYA/PHYLLIS MBANJE
THE World Health Organisation (WHO) has allowed governments to impose mandatory COVID-19 vaccination as the world faces the threat of a new variant, Omicron, but warned that they must exhaust all measures to encourage voluntary inoculation.
The Omicron variant was recently detected in South Africa and Botswana, but is yet to be recorded in Zimbabwe.
“Our lab scientists are still doing the genomics sequencing to identify if we have the Omicron variant locally,” Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 taskforce chief co-ordinator Agnes Mahomva told NewsDay yesterday.
In a recent audio clip, WHO head of health emergencies programme Mike Ryan said governments that wished to impose mandatory vaccination should avail the relevant information on the pandemic to enable informed choices.
“Our position in WHO is that mandatory vaccination should be only considered when the health gain that you are going to get from that is very clear and you have tried all other measures to get people vaccinated,” Ryan said.
“I still personally believe that the best way is to continue engaging with people and to continue to drive the idea of an informed choice, but there are circumstances in which the threat to society, the threat to the health system, and the threat to the economy is such that governments, having tried all other measures are able to make that
“This raises real issues around human rights and it’s something that governments should consider carefully, and they need to be sure that the benefits of doing this outweighs the risks and that they have done everything possible to address vaccine hesitancy and other issues, and they feel that they have no other alternative.”
He said the objective of vaccination was to protect society, adding that there should be reasons for that action to be taken, including dialogue with stakeholders and communities.
Local experts said there was still an information gap with regards COVID-19 vaccination.
Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights secretary Norman Matara said: “Government can utilise community health promoters. Members of the public still have many questions with regards to the vaccines.”
Community Working Group on Health executive director Itai Rusike said: “Let us identify the community vaccine champions and ambassadors who include traditional leaders, religious leaders and other influential members of the community so that they can encourage their followers to embrace the vaccine so that the country can accelerate towards achieving the required herd immunity.”
On the Omicron variant, Medical and Dental Private Practitioners of Zimbabwe president Johannes Marisa said although genomics sequencing studies revealed that it was yet to be detected in Zimbabwe, there was a possibility that some local patients could have been infected.
“Currently, we are relying on studies conducted in South Africa on the Omicron variant, but there are COVID-19 patients who are already exhibiting symptoms that are unique. Today (yesterday) I attended to four COVID-19 patients who were exhibiting gastro-intestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea, vomiting, general body weakness without coughing and sore throat. This is a warning that we could be under threat. There is need for authorities to move in with radical measures and ensure that we contain the virus,” Marisa said.
Other doctors said for the country to know whether some COVID-19 patients have the Omicron variant, there was need to get results of local genomics sequencing.
“But it is very possible that we may have the variant because we are witnessing more countries recording it,” Matara said. While the country is fretting over the variant and trying to prevent it, there are worrying reports that cross-border traders are sneaking into South Africa which has already recorded the Omicron variant.
Despite intensified patrols and blitz by security forces, some buses are reportedly smuggling people into South Africa, which opened its side of the border in March.
In a recent statement, national police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi warned that the buses involved would be impounded and handed over to the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority.
Regional immigration officer Nqobile Ncube said: “Our set-up at exit points is such that there is a checkpoint with immigration and security agents which screen persons intending to exit the country. Then at immigration, only Zimbabwean nationals with residence in South Africa are supposed to be allowed out.”
He said he was aware of buses that drop people before the border post so that they use informal crossing points.