VACCINE CONTROVERSY OP-ED
Aseem Malhotra’s visit to South Africa raises concerns over public healthcare safety
The current visit, lecture tour and associated social media campaign by UK based cardiologist Aseem Malhotra in South Africa has raised public safety concerns among clinicians, scientists, and public health specialists in South Africa and beyond.
Statement by vaccine scientists, cardiologists and public health specialists in South Africa
Malhotra is known to have strong and controversial views on Covid-19 vaccines and his claims that the risks of Covid-19 vaccination outweigh benefits have been expressed in public forums, including here in South Africa.
While Malhotra states that he is presenting evidence-based data, his “evidence” is cherry-picked, anecdotal, or comprises falsely linked side effects to Covid-19 vaccination.
Malhotra, a cardiologist at the ROC Private Clinic in the UK has specifically claimed that Covid-19 vaccines have harmful cardiac effects, a view refuted by the British Heart Foundation who told the Guardian that “The scientific consensus is that the benefits of Covid-19 vaccination, including a reduced risk of severe illness or death, far outweigh the very small risk of rare side-effects.”
Furthermore, cardiologists and cardiology associations worldwide have reviewed and restated that despite very rare and most often self-limiting effects, the benefits of Covid-19 vaccination far outweigh the risks. Read European Society of Cardiology consensus statement; American College of Cardiology statement and consensus document; South African Heart Association 2021 statement.
Malhotra’s views represent a tiny minority and giving him a platform in South Africa undermines the public health interest for Covid-19 vaccination and could inadvertently compromise the childhood vaccination programmes that save thousands of children’s lives annually in South Africa alone.
To date, more than 13.3 billion Covid-19 vaccinations have been administered worldwide. A recent modelling study estimated that 14-20 million lives were saved by deploying Covid-19 vaccines since late 2020, and hospitalisations continue to be averted in individuals who are boosted.
Ensuring that reliable, relevant, and updated information is given to the South African population is critical, but it is also important to ensure that distracting, unreliable and incorrect information is not elevated to create confusion and fear.
The misleading and false information purported also creates unwarranted doubt about other vaccines, with serious consequences, including decreased vaccine uptake and the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases (for example the current measles outbreak in SA). There is overwhelming evidence that vaccines have been a transformative tool for controlling or even eradicating infectious diseases generally, as well as specifically in relation to Covid-19.
For example, smallpox, which once caused millions of deaths, was eradicated thanks to a global vaccination campaign, while 23 million deaths were prevented between 2010-2018 by the measles vaccine alone. Similarly, vaccines have helped reduce the incidence of diseases such as polio, rotavirus, pneumococcus and many others, saving millions of lives annually.
Malhotra most recently visited prominent provincial political leaders and addressed the public at the invitation of members of the Western Cape Parliament. Whilst the talk was on ethically based health care, it is well known that Malhotra has called for the halting of Covid-19 vaccination due to “horrific and unprecedented covid vaccine injuries”. He stated in a tweet related to the event that “change is coming”.
Whilst freedom of speech and freedom to hear a variety of views is an important part of the South African constitution, giving apparent political and leadership endorsement to views that are not substantiated, and delivered unopposed without opportunity for rebuttal by health experts, undermines sound public health messaging, and is a direct threat to public safety.
In addition, Malhotra is allied to known conspiracy groups such as Health Advisory and Recovery Team and the Children’s Health Defense, which is an organisation opposing vaccination. Many of his followers and supporters are avid anti-vaxxers. Giving Malhotra opportunities for public forums also elevates the anti-vaccination lobby and amplifies their dangerous campaigns which potentially undermines all vaccine programs.
This group below representing South African vaccine scientists and public health specialists categorically reject Malhotra’s views, which lack evidence and scientific validity. We strongly endorse the importance of vaccination as a critical public health intervention.
Covid-19 vaccination is safe and effective and whilst there are very rare vaccine-related side effects, the overall benefits of Covid-19 vaccination, and other vaccines available to the public in South Africa, far outweigh these risks.
Ashraf Kagee, Professor of Psychology and Co-Director, Alan Flisher Centre for Public Mental Health, Stellenbosch University.
Benjamin Kagina, Associate Professor and Director, NITAG Support Hub (NISH), University of Cape Town.
Blanche Cupido, Immediate Past President of the South African Heart Association.
Brian Eley, Professor, Paediatric Infectious Diseases, University of Cape Town.
Carolyn Williamson, Professor of Virology, University of Cape Town.
Charles Shey Wiysonge, Senior Director, Cochrane South Africa & the HIV and other Infectious Diseases Unit, SAMRC.
Fareed Abdullah, Director, Office of AIDS and TB Research, South African Medical Research Council.
Francois Venter, Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand.
Glenda Gray, Research Professor, University of Witwatersrand, CEO & President, SAMRC.
Graeme Meintjes, Professor of Medicine, University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital.
Gregory Hussey, Emeritus Professor, University of Cape Town.
Guy Richards, Emeritus Professor of Critical Care, University of the Witwatersrand.
Hassan Mahomed, Stellenbosch University.
Ian Sanne, Assoc. Professor, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand.
Linda-Gail Bekker, Professor and Director, The Desmond Tutu HIV Centre, UCT.
Marc Mendelson, Professor of Infectious Diseases, University of Cape Town.
Mark Hatherill, Professor and Director, South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town.
Mark Tomlinson, Co-Director, Institute for Life Course Health Research, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town.
Marvin Hsiao, Principal pathologist, National Health Laboratory Service.
Mpiko Ntsekhe, Professor and Chair of Cardiology, University of Cape Town.
Ntobeko Ntusi, Professor and Head of Medicine, University of Cape Town and Groote Schuur Hospital.
Patrick Commerford, Emeritus Professor of Cardiology, University of Cape Town.
Quarraisha Abdool Karim, Professor and Associate Scientific Director: CAPRISA & Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Salim S. Abdool Karim, Professor and Director: CAPRISA & Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand.
Thumbi Ndung’u, Director for Basic and Translational Science, Africa Health Research Institute.
Dr Tony Hawkridge, Public Health Medicine Specialist, Director: Rural Health Services, West Coast District, Western Cape Government Health and Wellness.
Thomas Scriba, Professor, Division of Immunology, Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, University of Cape Town.
Valerie Mizrahi, Professorial Director, Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, UCT.
Wendy Burgers, Professor of Virology, University of Cape Town.
Wendy Stevens, Professor, Strategic Director: National Priority Programs, NHLS, University of the Witwatersrand.
Willem Hanekom, Executive Director, Africa Health Research Institute.
Zameer Brey, Groote Schuur Hospital board.