LIBERTYVILLE, Illinois — In the militarized region of Kashmir between India and Pakistan, there is another epidemic occurring on top of the COVID-19 pandemic — the epidemic of vaccine hesitancy among women in Kashmir. Rumors about the COVID-19 vaccine causing infertility among women have made their way around the region, resulting in few women registering for COVID-19 vaccinations.
Origins of misinformation
More than 72% of Kashmir’s population lives in a rural area where many do not have smartphones and internet access to help them fact-check rumors. These are also areas where there is a lack of access to healthcare facilities. Not only do rumors spread quickly through word-of-mouth with no way to correct the rumors through online research but doctors also struggle to reach women in these communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many doctors have moved to online platforms to speak with patients. However, without smartphones and internet access, rural people cannot reach these doctors, therefore, doctors are unable to correct any misconceptions about the COVID-19 vaccine,
For those with smartphones, it can still be difficult to navigate misinformation. Social media allows rumors to spread quickly. Rumors about infertility have even deeper impacts as societal norms in the region consider women who cannot bear children as less valuable. In fact, vaccines are the least popular among women ages 18 to 40 — the years in which women are generally expected to have children.
Impacts of Fewer Women in Kashmir Receiving Vaccines
Many healthcare workers also fall prey to misinformation, creating vaccine hesitancy among the very people administering the vaccines. “More than 80% of healthcare workers in Kashmir” are not vaccinated, which is troubling as India moves into its second wave of COVID-19.
Worse, in some cases, healthcare workers who are encouraging vaccinations have been subject to violence while visiting rural areas. There have been high tensions between those living in the Kashmir region and the Indian government as a result of India’s decision to remove Kashmir’s status as a semi-autonomous region recently. Thus, many of these violent attacks are motivated by the belief that the vaccine “would encourage support for the Indian government.”
Combating the Rumors
The Federation of Obstetric and Gynecological Society of India along with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both highly recommend COVID-19 vaccines for women, including pregnant women. Both organizations find no clear reason for pregnant women to avoid vaccination. In fact, pregnant women are more vulnerable to the dangerous, long-term impacts of COVID-19. Hopefully, the statements from these organizations will be enough to calm the fears of misinformed Kashmiri women.
However, with door-to-door vaccine drives aiming to combat misinformation along with the hard work of doctors and paramedics, vaccination numbers have slowly but surely begun to increase. Now, around 15% of those between the ages of 18 to 45 have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Although it will take a lot of work to continue to combat misinformation, increasing the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations among women in Kashmir will be beneficial for everyone in the region.
– Jessica Li