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Hesitancy in eastern EU stymies vaccination plan

by ANDRA TIMU AND IRINA VILCU BLOOMBERG NEWS (TNS) | May 23, 2021 at 4:03 a.m.

Supplies of covid-19 vaccines are beginning to outstrip demand in the European Union's east -- a phenomenon that may concern western member states whose citizens are wary of inoculation.

Some parts of the region are hitting a wall at a relatively early stage in their campaigns amid safety fears over AstraZeneca's shot, longstanding distrust of the authorities, fake news stories and a lack of education on the benefits of the injection and the dangers of the virus itself.

But with bigger western nations among the EU's top skeptics, the developments call into question whether vaccination can deliver the herd immunity that the continent wants.

Romania provides a stark example. With just a fifth of its 19 million people having received a shot, waiting lists have disappeared and walk-in services are open to all. Government ministers will show up at vaccination centers in person on Saturday in a bid to lure the less enthusiastic.

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"We're trying to find the best communication channels to reach citizens," Deputy Health Minister Andrei Baciu said. "We use public figures, politicians and sports icons, but we also use regular people. In the end, they're the best examples -- people trust other people."

Romania's not alone in struggling. Bulgaria, which has given a first dose to just 16% of its population, has also resorted to walk-ins. Hungary's vaccination chief said last week that there now are "a lot more" shots than takers, though its campaign is second only to Malta within the EU.

On the EU's fringe, Serbia -- which like Hungary has outperformed by offering Russian and Chinese-made injections -- is offering about $30 to people who get an injection.

Hesitancy isn't limited to the EU: American states and cities have begun offering incentives including free pizza to people who get their shots, though U.S. inoculation levels are already among the world's best.

For now, there's no panic in the bloc's west.

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France met a target to vaccinate at least 20 million people -- about 30% of its population -- by mid-May and is giving a record number of daily injections.

But Daphne Ahrendt -- a senior research manager at Eurofound, which tracks Europe's vaccine skepticism -- says false narratives continue to curb demand across the EU by stoking safety concerns.

"It's crucial for governments to make accurate information available on all communication channels," she said. "This isn't just happening in eastern Europe, but to a certain degree it's happening everywhere."

Conveying the message is proving tough for Romania. The share of the population wanting to get a shot barely budged between October and March, according to Slovakia-based think tank Globsec.

With a goal to vaccinate 5 million people by June set to be missed, the ultimate target of inoculating 60% to 70% of the country is in jeopardy.

As well as this weekend's appearances by ministers, the government is sending doctors and nurses door-to-door, particularly in rural areas, to make inoculation more accessible. There'll also be vaccination "marathons" -- including one at an airport to remind Romanians of the travel benefits of the shot.

Poland, too, fears falling short. While half of its citizens have had or are registered for a shot, it's also pulled in celebrities to promote inoculation.

"The challenge now is going to be how to win new people, how to convince them of the need for vaccination," Michal Dworczyk, who oversees Poland's rollout, told reporters Thursday. "We can't rule out a scenario where herd immunity isn't reached."

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