Reporting a doctor who is an antivaxxer to the HPCSA is not an issue if his or her reasons are not science based, Prof Ames Dhai, noted bioethics academic told virtual Gauteng General Practitioner Forum (GGPF) conference delegates at the weekend when responding to a delegate question.

She intimated, in fact, reporting such an individual should be encouraged: “If the antivaxxer is spreading misinformation that works against patients at large, that is a huge problem,” she added, reminding her audience that the Health Professions Council is there to guide the profession and protect the patient.

“If we have antivax messages not based on science and can’t be supported by evidence, if doctors propagate non-evidence-based medicine, this will always be a danger to their patients. So whether it is ethical or not to report them is a non-issue.”

Prof Dhai, a former director of the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics at Wits University and now on the MRC Ethics Committee and co-chair of Wits Human Research Ethics Committee (Medical), also acknowledged shortcomings in the government’s ability to communicate on its vaccine decisions.

“In terms of its vaccine strategy and the values of Ubuntu,” said Dhai, “we managed to tease out four foundational principles.” These, she went on to explain, were  the humanity of others – “the need to look to see if the common good was being promoted”, that decisions taken on vaccines had to be evidence based, and that there had  to be social solidarity “with each and everyone” as members of the community. Critically there had to be community engagement from which to build legitimacy, trust and ownership of vaccine decisions that are made.

“In South Africa, unfortunately, this is where we fall flat. We are not good communicators!”

Vaccine complacency, in addition to hesitancy, also seemed to have become a major problem: “We were hoping to have 40 million vaccinated by December but have only had 25 million now in late November. Huge problems with vaccine hesitancy and some complacency saw numbers drop dramatically – no-shows for their second Pfizer jab as well!

“Can only hope the arrival of omicron will be a wake-up call!”