A London-based GP is taking the fight against vaccine hesitancy into her own hands by phoning every patient from her surgery who has been offered but not yet accepted their jab, as part of the NHS’ battle against vaccine hesitancy.
Dr Farzana Hussain, GP at the Project Surgery in East London, kicked off her drive in recent days and has already called more than 50 patients from the most at-risk groups of people, urging them to take up the offer of getting their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr Hussain, who has had the vaccine, is among a number of senior medics and other public figures to raise concerns about a lack of uptake among certain ethnicities, including people of African, eastern European and south Asian heritage, and is calling on anyone with concerns to come forward for reassurance and reliable advice.
Since the NHS became the first health service anywhere in the world to give out a COVID-19 vaccine in December last year, when 90-year old Maggie Keenan got her jab in Coventry, more than 13 million people in England have had their first dose.
With important progress already made – including everyone aged 70 years old and over offered a jab, and all care homes visited for vaccination where it’s safe to do so – the NHS is now seeking to drive out hesitancy about the vaccine, and boost uptake particularly among people from black, Asian and ethnic minority groups.
Earlier this week, the NHS primary care director, Dr Nikki Kanani, spoke out against disinformation which she warned must be stopped “from spreading faster than the virus itself”.
Dr Hussain, who was one of 12 NHS staff photographed last year to mark the health service’s 72nd anniversary, is addressing people’s concerns around the vaccine directly and dispelling misinformation.
Partner at The Project Surgery, part of a primary care network in East London, Dr Farzana Hussain said: “I want to drive out hesitancy and drive up vaccination among my patients.
“I’m phoning everyone at my practice who is eligible but yet to get the vaccine to talk to them about why and have already reached more than 50 people aged 65 and older so far, with many of them now looking to take up the invite.
“In the vast majority of cases there is a hesitancy rather than outright rejection of the vaccine.
“A range of concerns came up, including misinformation around infertility and the use of animal products, which are both completely untrue. Often people are concerned about the speed the vaccine has been developed, but more than 13 million people in England have had it now, and it’s great to be able to say that with proof there are no issues.”
The Project Surgery and the network it is part of, is one of more than 1,500 vaccination sites around the country, comprised of GP surgeries, community locations like supermarkets, museums and sports stadiums, as well as hospital hubs, between them delivering hundreds of thousands of jabs weekly.
However, the uptake at Hussain’s practice in Newham is lower than the national average of more 90%, which Dr Hussain says is in part linked to hesitancy among many people in the community’s ethnically diverse population.
Dr Hussain said: “Being a British Bangladeshi woman, the issue of hesitancy among a group who are disproportionately affected by COVID is one that really hits home.
“It’s so personal to me, people from BAME communities are dying because of misinformation; British Bangladeshi’s are five times more likely to die due to COVID. There was no doubt in my mind to get the vaccine in order to protect my children and make sure I am still here to look after them. I want others to make that same choice”, Hussain says.
“One older lady I spoke to was worried about long-term side effects, but after talking it through with her, and with the support of her son, and desire to see her six-year-old grandchild grow up, she changed her mind.”
Hussain believes that working with families is key and that mothers can have a huge role to play due to their influence across the family – especially in multi-generational households.
But one harmful piece of misinformation spreading through these communities, and that has a particular impact on women, is around infertility.
“This disinformation comes from a real sense of shame that not being able to bear children brings and is a particular issue among women from African and Asian backgrounds.
“They would refuse the vaccine if there was a 1% chance of that happening, but I want to reassure people that there is no evidence of this at all.
“This is why it’s so important that people come and talk to me or other trusted healthcare professionals to make sure they have accurate information and are not putting themselves and their loved ones at risk.”
Others have raised concerns on religious grounds, such as an uncertainty around whether it would break fasting during Ramadan.
Dr Hussain, who is a practising Muslim, says: “Getting an injection does not break the fast – it’s not nutrition. There is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t have it. The Koran says saving your life is the most important thing, to save one life is to save the whole of humanity. It’s a responsibility of a practising Muslim to take their vaccine.”
The NHS has this week moved to the next phase of the biggest vaccination programme in its history, with people aged 65 and over and an expanded group of clinically vulnerable people now receiving the life-saving jab.
People who have received a letter can log on to the national booking service at www.nhs.uk/covid-vaccination and choose from more than 100 large-scale vaccination centres or almost 200 pharmacy services.
Anyone unable to book online can call 119 free of charge, anytime between 7am and 11pm seven days a week.
The NHS made history in January, following the groundbreaking world-first Pfizer jab in December, when Brian Pinker became the first person in the world to receive the Oxford/Astra Zeneca vaccine outside of a clinical trial, after.