With more than 5,000 cases of COVID-19 and 100 deaths a day, Bulgaria is rapidly approaching another peak of infections.
But as the death toll rises and the healthcare system becomes overloaded, most Bulgarians are still rejecting COVID-19 vaccines.
Bulgaria has the lowest vaccination rate in the 27-nation European Union, with only 21.8 per cent of its population vaccinated.
One of the millions of Bulgarians who do not want to be vaccinated is Dimo Indzhov, a 30-year-old sales representative living in Sofia.
“I’m not worried about side effects; every medicine has side effects. “On the contrary, it is the fact that vaccines are very new and their tests on humans have been done quickly,” he said.
Indzhov said he is not against vaccines in general, but does not see the need to get the COVID-19 injection at this point, given that he has been exposed to the virus several times but has not gotten sick.
The health ministry’s campaign to encourage vaccination, including a lottery for an intelligent watch, which he called “a joke”, failed to convince him.
Vaccination against the vaccine has cost Bulgaria thousands of lives.
Since the start of the mass vaccination campaign in March, about 11,000 coronavirus-related deaths have been recorded.
Experts said misinformation, poorly organized vaccination campaigns and contradictory messages from politicians and health authorities are some of the reasons why vaccination coverage is so low.
Healthy young people like Indzhov are more likely to be skeptical about vaccines, according to a September poll by Gallup International. They made up a significant portion of about 45 percent of respondents who said they were not vaccinated and did not want to be vaccinated.
Another survey conducted by Trend in November last year showed that conspiracy theories and misinformation shaped public attitudes towards COVID-19.
In that study, 52 percent said COVID-19 is an artificially created virus; 40 percent believed it was part of a conspiracy by pharmaceutical companies to increase profits; 33 percent were convinced that the coronavirus was no worse than the flu; and 16 percent believed that COVID-19 vaccines contained microchips that humans could control.
According to Dr Miroslav Spasov, a Sofia-based general practitioner, the spread of misinformation on social media platforms undermines doctors’ efforts to vaccinate. Of his 3,000 patients, only 700 have been inoculated.
“We are currently full of vaccines, but we either have to throw them away or give them away because people do not want to be vaccinated,” he said.
He said the government and the medical community played a role in the failure, claiming that high-risk groups were not targeted or prioritized for vaccination, while authorities failed to launch a cohesive information campaign.
Dr Spasov claimed that some doctors even discourage patients from receiving vaccines, despite overwhelming evidence of their effectiveness.
“I have had patients with chronic diseases, whom I have managed to convince to be vaccinated. I would then send them to a specialist for a second opinion and they would come back saying, ‘The doctor said, do not listen to your GP, do not put this waste in your body,’ he said.
Some Bulgarian doctors have publicly spoken out against the vaccine.
Dr Atanas Mangarov, a regular guest on TV shows, has falsely claimed that people infected with COVID-19 develop immunity that protects them from re-infection, while vaccines do not.
Vaccine skepticism among medical staff is also reflected in the relatively high percentages of unvaccinated hospital staff. According to the Bulgarian Doctors’ Union, about 30 per cent of doctors are not vaccinated against COVID-19. In some hospitals in Sofia, half the staff is not inoculated.
Deputy Health Minister Dr Toma Tomov, who once ran the COVID-19 ward at one of the capital’s leading hospitals, acknowledged that negative attitudes towards the vaccination campaign among medical staff are a problem.
When asked if the ministry was taking steps to address it, he replied: “There is a lot of information about vaccines available from verified sources that provide evidence. Anyone who wants to control it can do so and can contact the ministry as well. ”
He blamed the lack of funding for the ministry’s inability to launch a comprehensive information campaign targeting the general population.
Another challenge is the spread of fake vaccine certificates.
Bulgaria, like other EU countries, uses a centralized data system to register citizens who have received a vaccine.
Official statistics show that about 5.8 percent of weekly deaths are people who have been vaccinated, but medical experts believe some may have had false certificates.
Dr Tomov said it would be difficult to verify.
He said the ministry receives dozens of reports on fake certificates each week, which it forwards to law enforcement agencies.
“I do not think that people with fake certificates are such a large number, but they distort official statistics,” he said.
He hopes the vaccination rate will increase soon after the government imposed mandatory vaccine certificate requirements for people who want to enter public spaces.
Since mid-October, when the government started talking about this measure, 236,412 doses have been administered, compared to 218,139 for the entire month of September.
In parallel with the COVID-19 crisis, Bulgaria has also been rocked by political instability.
Two parliamentary elections this year have resulted in a dependent parliament and the country goes to a third on November 14th, which will be combined with a presidential vote.
Vaccination activity has turned into a political football.
Former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, for example, blamed the interim government appointed by his opponent President Rumen Radev for the low vaccination rate and said the health ministry had allowed the use of expired vaccines.
But Health Minister Dr Stoyko Katsarov said Borisov’s latest cabinet was responsible for the failed vaccination campaign.
According to Petar Cholakov, associate professor of sociology at the Institute for the Study of Societies and Knowledge at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, there has been a reluctance across the political spectrum to encourage vaccinations, which has severely damaged public confidence in the campaign. .
“Here lies the responsibility of politicians. “They should have come out and said clearly that vaccines help save lives, but they did not,” he said, noting that even key political figures failed to set an example early on.
Borisov received the vaccine only in July, while Radev told the media that he was vaccinated in August.
“In an election year, politicians are afraid of losing votes given how divided society is on the subject and how skeptical there is about vaccines,” Cholakov said.
He explained that a large-scale, systematic information campaign with cohesive messages from health authorities and the political elite could help people get vaccinated.
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