China Launches Elderly Vaccination Drive but Health Fears Linger

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – As China works to raise COVID-19 vaccination rates among its elderly, essential if the country is to open up again and live with COVID, many older people remain fearful that the treatment will make them sick.

“If I were fit for vaccination, I would definitely get it,” said Cai Shiyu, a 70-year-old retiree in Shanghai.

“But I’ve had a heart stent, and I have heart disease, and high blood pressure: what if something happens?”

Shanghai resident Yang Zhijie, 76, said she was scared of being vaccinated.

“Without the vaccination, I already have so many diseases, and after I do it I’m scared the diseases will become more serious,” she said.

Vaccinating the vulnerable has long been seen as a crucial requirement in China’s plans to open up after nearly three years of disruptive and economically damaging zero-COVID restrictions.

China’s health authority said on Wednesday that it would aim to improve accessibility and launch targeted programmes in nursing homes and leisure facilities as part of a new vaccination drive among the over-60s.

It also pledged to make renewed efforts to publicise the benefits of vaccination.

Ye Weifang, an unvaccinated 83-year-old Shanghai resident, told Reuters that she would need to be reassured by her doctor before receiving the jab.

“I look like I’m in good health now, but I have a pretty serious illness,” she said. “If the doctor thinks I can get vaccinated, I will do it.”

China has offered vaccinations for the elderly since April 2021, but the take-up rate slowed noticeably this year.

By November, the proportion of people aged 60 and above to be fully vaccinated reached 86.4%, barely changing from 85.6% in August. Those who have received a booster jab increased to 68.2% from 67.8% over the period.

The vaccination and booster rates in Japan, by contrast, were both at more than 90%.

“Concerns about safety and the lack of effectiveness probably are the major reasons why older adults refuse or delay vaccination,” said Florence Zhang, a researcher at the School of Medicine at China’s Jinan University, who has conducted studies into vaccine hesitancy among China’s elderly.

Public health experts say studies show that besides vaccination scepticism, the elderly have also been slow to take up the jab due to health, mobility and access.

The National Health Commission said it would take the vaccination campaign directly to residents of nursing homes and retirement facilities, though they only account for around 3% of China’s elderly population, according to a research paper by Shanghai’s Fudan University in September.

It would also deliver door-to-door vaccination services to those who are disabled or housebound and deploy specialist vaccination vehicles and temporary vaccination stations.

China has also been slowly rolling out vaccine insurance to reassure those who are worried about dangerous side-effects.

A survey of over-60s conducted by the Fudan University researchers showed that 51% of vaccine-hesitant respondents said they would be more likely to get jabbed if more insurance was available.

Anger over China’s zero-COVID policy, which has the world’s toughest restrictions, has sparked protests across the country and prompted authorities to start easing some curbs.

“I will be pretty worried (if curbs are eased). Especially for the elderly who haven’t been vaccinated,” said Shanghai resident Ye, who did not get vaccinated due to concerns over her health.

(Reporting by David Stanway and Xihao Jiang; Editing by Michael Perry)

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