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Myths, misinformation driving vaccination hesitancy among the urban poor in Nairobi

By Samuel Abuya| July 20, 2021

Editor’s note:

Getting people to trust vaccines is a public health concern worldwide. But the problem is much worse in poorer countries; the UK has vaccinated around 70% of its population, and the USA has achieved just under 60%, according to the the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. But in Nigeria and Kenya, the figure is more like 2%, and distrust seems to be strong in poorer communities, where there is often a mistrust of authorities. 



It is 2 pm in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. It is a rainy season and the grey velvet clouds are puffing up. Any minute from now, the heavens will open up.  

I’m trying to beat human and motorbikes (bodaboda) traffic in an overcrowded and busy walkway in Kisumu Ndogo, one of the thirteen villages that make up the larger Kibera Slums which sits approximately 7Km southwest of the capital.

Covid-19 containment measures, like maintaining social distance and wearing of face masks, seem to be something foreign here. A majority of the people on the roads don’t have the masks on. The few who have them on, are hanging them around their chins. Most of the food vendors along the, mostly dusty but now muddy, roads are bantering with each other and serving customers without masks.

The few hand-washing points which were, seemingly, installed when the pandemic started, have run dry and nobody pays attention to them.

I’m going to meet a group of youth in this informal settlement that has been trying to debunk the highly circulated coronavirus misinformation and, at the same time, sensitizing the locals on the need and importance of going for the Covid-19 jabs that the government started administering early March this year. But this, as they would tell me later, has not been an easy task given the lots of Covid-19 myths and misconceptions that the people here have been exposed to, consumed and apparently believed in.

As I approach our agreed meet up point, my lead contact, Dianah Akinyi, who was born and bred here, comes to welcome me.

The group of seven young men and women is waiting not far from the road, in a small open field. From there, one can have a good view of the densely populated slums.

Kibera is the biggest slum in Kenya and the largest urban informal settlement in Africa. It is, just like many other slums in Nairobi, characterized by high poverty levels, high unemployment rates that keep ballooning with years and lack of access to basic necessities like running water, affordable medical care, sanitation, good housing and electricity.

A majority of the population here, which is estimated at 250,000 people, live under the standard two-dollars a day poverty line, as defined by the World Bank, making life unbearable for some families, a situation that has been worsened by the existing Covid-19 pandemic. It is, clearly, a population that is more vulnerable to the Covid-19 infections.

The country is currently in its third wave and the Ministry of Health has been cautioning Kenyans against lowering the guard as far as containment measures are concerned.

Statistics released by the Ministry of Health indicate that as of April 29, 2021, Kenya, a country of slightly above 47 million people according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statisticshad vaccinated 876,708 people. Nairobi, a city according to the 2019 census has a population of 4.3 million people, had registered 267,453 vaccinations only.

This is far below the targets and a clear indication and reminder of the elephant in the room as far as the inoculation campaign is concerned – vaccination hesitancy, something which this group of youth has been trying to break.

“Karibu sana (you’re most welcome),” Hesbon ushers me to the waiting group.

As the talks continue, one of the young men reaches out to his pocket and gets his phone. He plays a video clip. It’s from Dr Jack Githae, one which went viral just about when the government was about to roll out the mass inoculation campaign calling on people not to take the shots.

In the 3-minutes-long clip whose longer version is still on YouTube, the eloquent and seemingly convincing Kenyan Australian-trained traditional medical practitioner repeatedly reminds people that ‘vaccinations have been used in the past to exterminate unwanted populations’ and that the Covid-19 jabs are no different.


Apart from claiming to have been curing coronavirus since it landed in Kenya using his traditional medicine, Dr. Githae, who has been in practice for the last 50 years at least according to him, further argues that diseases have been introduced in some places before through vaccinations and goes ahead to cite examples, just as he does in his ‘extermination claims’.  

“This is the kind of misinformation that we’re battling that has driven the amount of vaccination hesitancy being witnessed here. It’s high profile, some of the people we talk to know Dr. Githae in person. How do you fight that?” he poses.

“How many of our people here in the slums, a majority of them not really schooled that much, can question or doubt what a doctor has said? He told them not to go for the jabs because ‘it is a product of an unchallenged conspiracy’ and that’s exactly what they’re doing,” he adds.

A check on Dr. Githae’s digital footprint and profile confirms that indeed he has been a consultant with the World Health Organization (WHO), and a trainer with the Commonwealth Secretariat in the COMESA region.


A screenshot of Dr. Githae during the interview with journalists that went viral.
A screenshot of Dr. Githae during the interview with journalists that went viral.


I’m told there are a bunch of other myths and misinformation that residents here have consumed and held on to.

A lot of residents here have bought into the idea of self-medication against the novel coronavirus using some local concoctions. It’s a boiled mixture of ginger, lemon and garlic. They believe it does beat the virus.

As we leave, I decide to talk to one food vendor along the road. From a quick look, she seems to be in her early 40s.

I approach her. She’s welcoming.

“Naomba kuuliza tafadhali. Umepata chanjo ya Covid-19? (Allow me to ask please. Have you had the Covid-19 vaccine?)” I ask.

She smiles. She’s not masked up. “Hiyo kitu mimi sitaki (I don’t want that thing),” she tells me as she turns the fish in her frying pan. “Kwanza hapa kwa Kijiji sisi hatujaona mtu amekufa juu ya corona na pia tumeskia mambo mingi juu ya hiyo sindano (in the first place, we’ve not seen anybody here in the village die of Coronavirus and we’ve also heard a lot about these vaccines),” she adds.

At that point, I’m curious.

“Tumeambiwa kuna vile inaingilia hii mambo ya akina mama ya kila mwezi. Tena tumeskia ziko na long term effect. (we’ve been told the vaccines interferes, in a way, with the monthly periods for ladies. We’ve heard, again, that the vaccines have long term effects to those vaccinated),” the mother of three says.

Another vendor who has been following our conversation jumps in. “Pia hii vaccine wanapea watu huku ilikataliwa huko majuu (Also note that the vaccine which they’re giving people here, AstraZeneca, was banned in Europe),” she points out. “Mbona gava idunge wasee kitu imekataliwa kwingine na tuliona? (why should the government vaccinate its people with a vaccine that was banned elsewhere? We saw it!)”.

In a phone interview, Dr. Brian Kimani from Doctor On Call says that “there has been lack of education and sensitization of the population on the vaccination campaign”. He agrees that there is the need of reassuring the masses that the vaccines have gone through the entire scientific processes required and are safe and effective.

On Dr. Githae’s claims of curing coronavirus using his traditional medicine, Dr. Kimani terms the claims as “unverifiable and likely to be untrue”.

The script witnessed in the infamous Kibera slums is the same across other informal settlements in the outskirts of Nairobi. A spot check in Mathare slums, which is the second-largest slum in Kenya and Mukuru slums shows that people have gone back to their normal way of living. A majority have not taken the Covid-jabs but are, evidently, not paying any regards to the containment measures. They, also, have issues with the vaccines.

However, the World Health Organization has since assured people of the safety and efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccines.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has also outlined how the Covid-19 vaccines work. According to the institution, “the Covid-19 vaccines help our bodies develop immunity to the virus that causes Covid-19 without us having to get the illness”.

According to the Ministry of Health, Kenya has so far reported more than 171,000 infections and 3,223 deaths since the first case was registered in the country.

The government is set to begin the second mass vaccination targeting at least 10 million people by June next year, but if the phase will be met with the kind and amount of hesitancy being witnessed in the first phase, then the government needs to invest in a robust campaign to educate the masses on the need and importance of taking the shots and debunking the Covid-19 myths and misinformation that many people have bought into.

This is an edited version of a story by Samuel Abuya which originally appeared on Africa Global News.