African Immigrant Health Groups Work To Dismantle Vaccine Disinformation

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to pose a global threat to communities around the world, health advocates are working to dismantle disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines. 

The African Family Holistic Health Organization (AFHHO) is one of the groups working specifically to get more African people in the US accurate information about the vaccines and to get the shots. 

The Portland, Oregon-based group is led by Dr. Frank Minja, who told NPR vaccine education is an important step since so much disinformation surrounds the COVID-19 vaccines. 

“We’ve seen the whole gamut of misinformation that basically started with the face that Africans and people of African ancestry are not susceptible to COVID,” he told the outlet. 

Minja, who is originally from Tanzania, holds virtual Q&A sessions for people wanting to get more information about the shots. He’s answered a range of questions from where to get the vaccine to conspiracy theories that the vaccines were designed to take out the Black race. 

Minja’s are filling a gap in other efforts to get Black people less hesitant to take the COVID-19 vaccine, since many of the initiatives leave out African immigrants, many of whom, the doctor said, get their information from sources in their home countries. Minja noted that some immigrants from Africa don’t use American news as their only source of information, and others experience language barriers. Family and friends from back home are also sources of information, many relaying information on social media platforms like WhatsApp to get updates about COVID-19 and the vaccine. 

But not all of the information coming from home is unhelpful. Chioma Nnaji, a Massachusetts-based health worker and community organizer told NPR that traditional herbal remedies are sometimes relayed between family members which can be helpful in treating symptoms of less severe cases of COVID-19. Nnaji told the outlet this context is particularly important to note as “certain communities live and operate in two spaces.” 

“This is usually applicable to immigrants and refugees where they still have connections to their home countries while they are resettling in a new country,” Nnaji said. 

Minja noted that there’s plenty of misleading information being relayed as well, and that “a lot of it is really about just planting the seeds of distrust,” he said. The group is also working to combat notions that immigration status will impact a person’s ability to get the vaccine and helps sign people up to get their doses.

In a historical context, Dr. Ifeanyi Nsofor, a global health expert from Nigeria who is also working to combat vaccine misinformation, said that many countries medically exploited people on the continent of Africa. 

“It’s almost like anything you say is coming from the white man, people look at it with lots of suspicion, based on that experience of colonialism,” Nsofor said. The exploitation didn’t end with colonialism either. As late as 1996, Pfizer, one of the manufacturers of the COVID-19 vaccine, was accused of giving an experimental meningitis drug that left 11 children dead and dozens more disabled. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, two French doctors came under fire after suggesting COVID-19 vaccine trials be held in Africa. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyseus, the World Health Organization’s director called the doctors’ suggestion a “hangover from a colonial mentality.” 

Given the layered reality of vaccine misinformation paired with the historical context, organizations like AFHHO are critical in getting the vaccine to as many people as possible in a culturally relevant way. 

“It makes sense to hear from our own,” Haika Mushi, a health worker at AFFHO told NPR. Mushi has been coordinating the virtual question sessions for people since the pandemic began. 

“We feel like if the people here are well enough educated about the vaccine, they will be able to educate our families back home –– our friends, neighbors back home,” she added. 

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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