From Fred Ezeh, Abuja
Dr. Ngong Cyprian is a Senior Registrar, Department of Family Medicine, National Hospital Abuja. He made history last week when he received the first shot of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Nigeria. In this interview, he allayed the fears of many Nigerians as regards the vaccine. Excerpt:
How do you feel after taking the COVID-19 vaccine first dose last weekend?
I felt very good to be the first Nigerian to be given the COVID-19 jab officially. It went to show that the struggle is worth it. I took the vaccine at a flag-off ceremony to tell people that there’s nothing hidden beneath the fight against the COVID-19. I will be most happy if we overcome vaccine hesitancy and achieve a 70 per cent successful vaccination to give us hard immunity. For me that is paramount. I know all hands are on deck to achieve that in the shortest possible time given the resources and commodities available. With this we will win.
You are the first to take the vaccine publicly in Nigeria, why did you accept the offer when many thought the President should have taken the first shot?
That I got my jab even before the President was an acknowledgement of the effort myself and other colleagues are putting in the trenches of the COVID-19 warfare. Taking the COVID-19 first jab was not a political statement. The populace needs to identify with us who have been at the frontline who have studied COVID-19, fought the virus, and seen the devastating effects first hand. We are doctors with easy access to everyone without the usual bureaucracy of the Presidency. I can tell you how I have been inundated with calls and messages. Some asked for a direct verdict; to take or not to take? Some were ready to pay money if I could secure a jab for them. An acquaintance of mine called and was asking if the people from the Presidency contacted me to be sure I wasn’t convulsing so they can be assured that our number one man could go ahead and take the jab. He said “I am sure the President called you to ask if you were convulsing after taking the vaccine” to which I jokingly answered “yes”. Told him I answered His excellency thus; “No! Mr President. Not even in za oza room” laughs. But hey, there was no such contact and communication because the health system never uses people as guinea pigs. It’s unethical. It was a statement that we, the frontline healthcare workers are important, because as you may well know, our emoluments do not show this. This was an avenue for encouraging us and I felt encouraged. I mean, I and my colleagues face the virus on a daily basis. The president faces the virus only through us frontline healthcare workers. I believe he felt we deserved that honour on his scale of preference. I think the significance is more than the three dollars this vaccine is billed to cost. Don’t you think so?
Did you experience any reactions (side effects) after taking the vaccine?
The only side effect I experienced was just the pin prick of the jab. But some other colleagues who took the jab same day and time with me felt some additional local pains
Many believe you would have been used as a guinea pig, that’s for the VIPs to be sure the vaccine is not deadly.
Guinea pig? Well, I wouldn’t call it that. As knowledgeable as we are as doctors, we should actually allow ourselves to be guinea pigs for the people to agree that this vaccine really does what it’s supposed to do. We should put ourselves out there for it. I thank the brave men and women who participated in the early phase of the trials that certified the vaccine safe for human consumption. Those are the real heroes, not guinea pigs. When I first started work at the isolation centre, somebody came from Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to train us on using Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), she made us understood that if we assessed the level of exposure and it was not as much, to just keep to a one-meter distance was good enough making sure you basically protected the “T” areas of the face viz eyes, nose and mouth. The hands could also serve as a conduit to convey the virus to these areas. We asked her if she can lead by example and go into the isolation centre with just the facemask and maintain a one-meter distance and she said “let’s go” without hesitation. She proved her point. When you put it that way, it wasn’t a guinea pig. I have patients whom I have managed, and they are thousands of them and some have even called me that they believe that I wouldn’t take the vaccine if it wasn’t safe and effective. So, I have survivors that believe in me, calling to appreciate me. I believe it is the way to go. We, Family Physicians, manage patients in a biopsychosocial holistic manner in the context of their family, using every opportunity for prevention of disease and promotion of health. We are bullish on prevention and the vaccine is primary prevention. Who else to launch such a game changer than a primary care physician? I saw @Atiku tweet about my taking the vaccine and I am aware he had his jab long before mine. He encouraged as many to be vaccinated. So, the significance was more on us as frontline healthcare workers being given a priority. Someday, this prioritization will be extended to budgetary prioritization that will halt the brain drain we are currently facing. It was definitely a step in the right direction.
What gave you the courage and conviction to take the vaccine despite the fear expressed by people?
I think these fears were only fuelled by unfounded conspiracy theories as well as the various mass media visuals of people convulsing or having some severe adverse effects after the jab. Of course, with every new thing, there should be some misgivings. Especially an unseen enemy in an unprecedented pandemic with unsung heroes. It can only be dispelled by superior reasoning. I had studied the vaccine products given accelerated production and Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA). I had looked at the rigours of experimental science to which I am part of the community. I would even have taken the novel mRNA vaccine from Moderna or Pfizer because I know the rigours behind them. Look, even a 30 per cent level of protection or less is better than none. Here we are talking about 70 to 90 per cent. When you know what COVID-19 is about, you will appreciate any per cent increase in protection.
You said if this vaccine had come earlier your father may not have died, why were you unable to save your father as a doctor because many who contacted the virus didn’t die?
May the soul of Baa BuriNyuy Cyprian, my dad, rest in perfect peace, amen. My dad had three negative tests for COVID-19 before he developed what is known as “stroke” and succumbed two days later. It goes to show that, the fight is not in vain. My late dad had all the feared comorbid conditions the books talk about, namely, hypertension, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, obesity, dyslipidaemia and yet he beat the COVID-19 in principles. In a book that I am currently working on, I made reference to isolation and insulation centres. We are already hosting isolation centres, but we need to insulate certain people at risk for severe COVID-19 and its sequalae. My late dad was one of such that required insulation. And how do we insulate them: non-pharmacologic methods and now the vaccines. I still maintain that the vaccine would have given my dad a head start on the COVID-19 situation and that is the opportunity up for grabs with these vaccines. There is a big difference between someone with no comorbidities catching the virus and someone with the multiple comorbidities that my dad unfortunately had. He survived the battle, unfortunately, not the war. I miss him dearly. I pray every one above age 65 years with comorbidities gets the vaccine to insulate them from severe COVID-19. My dad didn’t get it because it wasn’t available. Now it is becoming readily available. We are going to start seeing the import of that as soon as the current trends start reversing with an increasing vaccine uptake.
We learnt the vaccine will not give 100 per cent safety guarantee of contracting the virus. Now that you have taken it, what are you going to do to further protect yourself?
Yes, the vaccine will not give 100 per cent protection. Your sources are correct. But of course, with the vaccine, I am not likely to get severe COVID-19. I could still get a mild form of the disease. I could still transmit this to an unvaccinated colleagues, patients, friends and family. This means that the non-pharmacological methods of prevention still have to be strictly adhered to. This includes the knowledge base of COVID-19. Just knowing that there is COVID-19 out there is one of the first hurdles for us. The awareness will modify the practices positively. The use of physical distancing, facemasks, hand wash and use of alcohol-based sanitiser and cleaning surfaces regularly will go a long way in stemming the tides in the interim. Source-control means that an infected person wearing a mask can limit transmission from even a doctor like me. The uptake of the vaccine needs to be accelerated to reach the critical 70 per cent. Perhaps then, we can ease off and get to near normal.
What is your general advice to Nigerians on this vaccine?
The vaccines are safe, I felt a pinch with the jab and that was it. Nigerians should avail themselves for the jab. I hope the world will provide the jabs. Nigerians are wise, well-educated and have a survival instinct. They have key gatekeepers like myself that will steer the knowledge base of those that are not so educated. My conviction that vaccination is about the best shot we have against the virus and the closest we would ever get to near normal spurs me to make bold this statement: Take the vaccine, ask the world for more vials, get at least 70 per cent of Nigerians vaccinated and stop COVID-19 and its devastating consequence. We Will Win (WWW).