Researchers on crucial Covid-19-related study forced out of Cape Flats
By Bulelwa Payi 23m ago
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Cape Town – Researchers conducting a crucial study have urged communities to collaborate with efforts to gather information that could guide the vaccine roll-out.
The appeal comes ahead of an expected massive Covid-19 vaccination programme countrywide later in the year to help stem the death and infection tides.
A recent report by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) indicated that the excess mortality of Covid-19 in South Africa could be as high as 120 000, far above the official toll of 43 000.
More than 30 000 excess deaths have been recorded in January alone. The report was released as the country’s first batch of vaccines was due to arrive.
If most of these excess deaths can be attributed to Covid-19, which South African experts believe they can, then the country’s death toll would be the highest – as a proportion of its population – in the world.
In an environment where misinformation about Covid-19 and the vaccine is rife, the vaccination work could be made more complicated by dynamics on the ground.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) is currently conducting a survey with research partners including Epicentre Health Research on Healthcare Utilisation and Seroprevalence (HUTS) of Covid-19 in three districts countrywide.
The study, according to the Institute, was aimed at gathering information on what percentage of people in the population had been infected with Covid-19, and which groups might have experienced higher infection rates than others.
The information could be useful in guiding the vaccine roll-out. Researchers conducting the study were forced out of an area on the Cape Flats this week by a gang after a " misunderstood" media article related to the researchers.
Regional Manager of Epicentre Health Research, a public health research company, Johann van der Bergh, said the lockdown regulations, which limited the movement of people and kept them isolated, also contributed to mistrust of the field workers.
"It's easy for rumours to spread. But it's also dangerous for our teams," said Van der Bergh. "In situations like this we quickly meet with all stakeholders, including the SAPS, gang leaders and neighbourhood watches, to ensure they all have the correct information. This is a bit harder to do on the Cape Flats, as the situation can often get volatile. The community has special people who do a lot of good work. They keep our teams safe and ensure that we can collect the science needed to inform the pandemic response."
Van der Bergh said engagements with community leaders, such as councillors and the neighbourhood watches, were also key before the teams of researchers were deployed in the community.
The Department of Health and the police would also be informed.
"With each study that is community based, it is important to understand the social dynamics of the area, the cultures and traditions. We also work in partnership with traditional leaders, By understanding and respecting this, we enjoyed a high success rate. We are one of the few companies that have been able to successfully operate on the Cape Flats because we strive to understand the mechanisms at work in each of the communities we enter, and follow the required protocol," Van der Bergh said.
“The company has also increased the branding on its vehicles so that they can be easily identified. We wear special cloth masks to protect all our participants," Van der Bergh added.
Head of the Centre for Respiratory Diseases and Meningitis (CRDM) at Wits University Professor Cheryl Cohen said the study was of significance as the vaccination campaign would want to achieve as high a success rate as possible.
"If we are thinking on a community level, then it is likely that the more people who have been previously infected, the more will have some kind of protection, and this will assist in the process of achieving “herd immunity”. So knowing what percent of people have been infected helps us to understand this," said Cohen.
Van der Bergh appealed to communities to co-operate and allow smooth access to fieldworkers.
"Our teams have stepped up to the plate and are risking their lives as front-line workers to gather the science needed to help our country beat the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We ask communities to welcome us and help us beat Covid-19 together,” he said.
The national Department of Health did not respond to questions regarding plans to prepare the ground for the roll-out of the vaccine in communities.