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Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, when the world was panicking, South Asians often took to WhatsApp messaging service for advice on cures.  

WhatsApp’s End-to-end encryption, its biggest selling point for privacy makes tracing the source of a message very difficult, creating the perfect storm for misinformation.  As the biggest market for the app and 323 million internet users, India is the source of the most Covid misinformation

Conspiracy Theories And Fake Cures

One conspiracy theory about the origin of the virus took root in India. Whatsapp groups began exchanging unverified messages that the virus was created in a Wuhan lab to allow China to control the world.  

Undoubtedly that story grew out of the challenging relationship between India and China. Border skirmishes and armed standoffs along the Sino-Indian border have long escalated tensions in the last few years and fanned suspicion about each country.  Reports say that this theory actually began and flourished  in India before being endorsed by conservatives in the West.

Ayurvedic Remedies

Fake cures for Covid symptoms abounded on Whatsapp. One suggested drinking hot water with lemon with a little bit of honey to ward off a Covid-19 infection or drinking jeera (cumin) water to boost immunity. Some touted cow urine and  steam inhalation as solutions to cure Covid.

Many Asian Indians took to traditional Ayurvedic remedies to combat Covid.  Ayurveda is a natural system of medicine that has been in practice in India for more than 3,000 years.  The term Ayurveda is derived from the Sanskrit words ayur (life) and veda (science or knowledge).  At a time of great anguish and anxiety, Indians naturally resorted to familiar Ayurvedic remedies.

Vague, Confusing Messaging

The government of India produced a document on management protocols based on ayurveda and yoga for management of Covid19.  This was not encouraged in lieu of vaccines but rather, encouraged in conjunction with modern medicine. But the messaging was vague and confusing. 

Kumudha Venkatesan follows an Ayurvedic lifestyle called Dinacharya (daily living guidelines).  She says, “I strongly feel that immunity plays a pivotal role in the health of human beings.” She discusses her ayurvedic principles with her primary care provider and thrives on a plant based diet.  Yoga and meditation brings balance and bliss to her life.  But Kumudha has been vaccinated for Covid and so has her son.  

To Vaccinate Or Not To Vaccinate

Tina Woolsley, a Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist based in Oakland explained that she customized her ayurvedic treatments for the whole individual. “I would look, first of all, at the whole lifestyle of the person. I would want to know how strong the mind is of this person and ayurvedically you know, I have found in practice, it’s always true that the mind and digestion are essentially mirrors of one another.” Woolsley addresses immunity and vitality on a case by case basis. Her South Asians clients make up about a quarter of her patients.

When it comes to Covid vaccines, Woolsley is quick to point out that she is not in any position to give that medical advice. “However, if someone is evaluating, I am available to explore pros and cons within my scope of practice.” Woolsley  is vaccinated and says that all her patients except one have chosen to do so too.

Misinformation In The US

In the US, a few South Asian physicians have played an significant  role in questioning public health rules during the pandemic. Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a Professor of Medicine at Stanford, has opposed lockdowns from the beginning and believes that herd immunity is the answer.  Herd immunity occurs when a certain percentage of a population has acquired the antibodies to fight disease.

Bhattacharya is one of three authors of the Great Barrington Declaration which stated that while the old and medically compromised need protection, everyone else should live life normally.  Bhattacharya was even invited to President Trump’s White House and met with then health and human services secretary, Alex M. Azar II to share his point of view. 

Critics of this policy, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Rochelle Walensky argue that remaining unvaccinated would sacrifice low-income workers, as well as those who live in multi-generational families.

This loud and raucous debate added to the confusion surrounding the virus and mitigations to reduce its spread.

Vaccinating Our Children

Sheetal Krish, lives in the East Bay area of Northern California with two sons aged 8 and 9.  She could not wait for her sons to get the Covid vaccine as soon as it was approved.

“They were one of the first ones in our town to get vaccinated. I’m ready for their boosters as well.”

Priya Lavakumar, an operations manager from Sacramento, is more cautious.  Her two elementary school children are vaccinated and boosted for Covid.  

But  she is hesitant about giving her 3 year old her shot. Though the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines became available for children under 5 on June 18, Lavakumar wants to take her time to make this decision after more data is available.  

Parents Wait To Vaccinate Youngest

Lavakumar believed she had more time while her youngest was home during the pandemic. But all that changed last week when her 3-year old started preschool for the first time. “She went only for a day. Her school closed immediately because they had 2 positive cases in two days.” Lavakumar is considering vaccinating her daughter in the near future.

At Sutter Health in Santa Clara, pediatrician Dr. Manisha Panchal is surprised by this dichotomy.  Earlier in the pandemic, she said that she would hear from her patients’ families within hours, the moment the media announced vaccine approvals   “It’s been approved by the FDA, can I come in for getting the vaccine like the same day?”

But now that the vaccine has been approved for the youngest children aged 6 months to 5 years, parents have become very cautious and are using a wait and watch method to decide. 

Very Low Vaccination Rates

In California, just 1.6 percent of children under the age of five have received an initial vaccination, according to Aug. 15 data from the California Department of Public Health.

Panchal says that many parents want to wait until there is more data and to see how other kids are responding.

“We don’t have many takers and we are wasting vials of vaccine. We get 10 doses in one vial and frequently throw away 4 per day!” 

What Are Parents Concerned About?

Vaccine hesitancy among these parents arose from the fear of reactions from getting vaccinated, especially for children who already have allergies.

“I think the main concern that I got from my families’ was for kids that have allergies,” said Dr. Navneet Singh, a pediatrician at Sutter Health in San Jose who treats several children with environmental or food allergies at his practice. “They had heard that, if you have allergies, you should not get the COVID vaccine.They want to be sure there was no contraindication to getting the vaccine and having allergies.” Singh assures them that it’s a very specific type of allergy to polyethylene glycol. 

Another concern that his adolescent male patients had was about “myocarditis, pericarditis, you know, related to getting the vaccine,” said Singh. “I explained to them that you’re actually more likely to get myocarditis and pericarditis from COVID than you are from getting the vaccine. And that the cases of pericarditis and myocarditis that we have seen in kids are very mild, they usually don’t need hospitalization, they just usually respond with anti inflammatories.”

Fertility Issues

Dr. Manisha Newaskar, a pediatric pulmonologist at Stanford, said that parents of girls approached her for guidance and assurance about potential fertility issues. They had questions about whether the vaccine “causes long term problems like fertility issues or changes in their menstrual cycle.”  

Newaskar has had frank conversations with her families who express confidence in her advice. “If you are confident that this will not affect my child in any negative way, then I’m happy to vaccinate my child.”

At 60%, the vaccination rate for Asian children aged 5-11 is low,   compared to close to 80% for the older age groups of Asians. 

Is Covid Milder In Children?

Newaskar said that the trend is based on the belief that Covid is much milder in kids. “My child is healthy and COVID is causing more problems in elderly population.”  So why should I vaccinate my child? 

Panchal also believes that the vaccine distribution system for the younger kids aged 5-11 has not been efficient.

“We haven’t made it really easy to access vaccines for that age group. At Sutter, we had issues with staffing. We just didn’t have the bandwidth to be able to vaccinate the younger age group right when it was approved. And so we just started a month ago, vaccinating 5 to 11. It’s pretty late.  So I think that accessibility wasn’t as good.”  

Panchal has also heard from her patients that many pharmacies don’t even offer the vaccines for the younger age group. 

Prioritizing Messaging

However, now that the adults are vaccinated, families are reconciled to living with the virus and the medical community has forgotten to keep emphasizing that message.

Panchal is frustrated that the medical community as well as public health officials are not continuing to prioritize messaging about the efficacy of vaccines to the general public.

“You don’t hear a lot about the vaccines anymore.” 

The physicians also agree that logistical issues are responsible for incomplete vaccinations in the 5-11 age group. But bridging the information gap and following up with parents often helps in completing the vaccination schedule. Offering appointments after-hours and on weekends, allows parents to get their children to the vaccination sites.

Long Covid And The Unvaccinated

At her clinic, pediatric pulmonologist, Dr. Newaskar sees patients with Long Covid who present with e symptoms like  fatigue, chronic cough or exercise intolerance. Some patients have chest pain issues.

What’s significant, says Newaskar, is that “I’m getting referrals for people who have developed long COVID syndrome, and typically, they have been unvaccinated.” 

Dr.Priya Soni, a pediatrician at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, agrees. All the children she has seen for Long Covid have not been vaccinated. But she points out, “It’s not a study. It’s just my experience. So I don’t want to put too much weight on it.”

Soni observed that children who experience long COVID symptoms eventually get their booster vaccine or the next dose of their series. “And somehow they improve. So there is an immune component here that we are still trying to figure out.”

This report was produced with support from Ethnic Media Services. It may not be republished without express written consent from publisher@indiacurrents.com