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Belgium leads the EU vaccination race – POLITICO

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Nowadays, Belgians are focused on winning just one thing: Euro 2020.

But in the meantime, the country of 11 million people is winning the race for as many weapons as possible.

By Saturday, three quarters of Belgians over 18 had received at least one vaccination, 42 percent were fully vaccinated. And since the vaccinations are progressing steadily, the country leads all other EU countries with the exception of Malta, according to POLITICO’s vaccination progress table.

The rapid rollout contrasts with Belgium’s harrowing experience of trying to control the virus at the start of the pandemic and in the second wave last fall. And the vaccination campaign itself got off to a bumpy start due to delays in vaccine deliveries, as in other EU countries.

But Belgium turned things around in the spring, especially in the northern Dutch-speaking region of Flanders, with the world’s best rollout. That came as no surprise to some experts, who had said early on that it would look much better in the long run.

Steven Van Gucht, a virologist serving as COVID-19 spokesman for the Belgian government, was among them. In a follow-up interview with POLITICO in mid-May, he said it was “the Flemish confidence to receive a push” that makes the difference.

By Saturday, 79 percent of adults in Flanders had received at least one dose. For citizens over 65 years of age, this number rises to around 95 percent, in some cities even to 100 percent.

As in other western countries, the debate is now shifting from vaccine deliveries to vaccine readiness. And what helps in Flanders is a tradition of open communication about vaccines, said Karolien Poels from the University of Antwerp, who monitors vaccination readiness and advises the Belgian government on how to communicate.

“The government left the decision to the citizens and did not press too hard against the initial hesitation of the vaccine,” said Poels. “Respecting certain doubts and giving people a choice can help get citizens who initially hesitate to get over the line.”

Belgium’s success is also linked to the country’s decision to take a straightforward approach that “makes vaccination as easy as possible,” said Wouter Beke, Minister of Health for the Flemish Region.

“Instead of an open invitation, the citizens get a time and date,” he said. “We have set up a whole series of new vaccination centers so that everyone within a radius of 10 kilometers can get a vaccination. And we have involved doctors, pharmacists and civil society to convince the initial doubts.”

The decisive factor is the logistics, adds Beke, who is also mayor of Leopoldsburg, a small town that used to house a garrison and now has a military base.

“Wars were lost and won through logistics,” said Beke. “This vaccination campaign was the largest logistical operation since World War II. So we prepared for the fight.”

Too many cooks in the kitchen?

A particular Belgian challenge was the implementation of a policy with nine ministers responsible for health. In fact, the division of health skills between different Belgian governments was one of the reasons the country initially struggled with the pandemic.

But a spirit of collaboration emerged during the vaccination campaign. The five different ministers responsible for vaccinations had, for example, exchanged best practices and learned from each other, said Beke. Given that many other countries are facing similar challenges, he added, they could learn more from Belgium’s experience.

“We are constantly sharing our experiences within Belgium, from invitations to call centers to deliveries,” he said. “That drives us to achieve a higher level of performance.”

“A lot of the differences across Europe, just like the US, have to do with social factors and other variables, but it’s also the way you approach this vaccination campaign,” he added. “What works and what doesn’t?”

Another example where he believes the EU could have been better is the different rules across the EU on the Oxford / AstraZeneca jab, which he believes stem from the failure of the European Medicines Agency to provide clearer advice. After his qualified green light in March, he said: “Half of the EU countries continued to use it, a quarter discontinued it and a further quarter applied restrictions.”

“That’s not really ideal,” he said, referring to the EU’s lack of unity. In two ways, he explained, the block could have tackled this challenge better: more sharing best practices and making sure everyone is on the same page.

Brussels reach

That is not to say that the Belgian example is perfect. Some communities continue to struggle to convince citizens to accept the sting.

One of them is the French-speaking southern region of Wallonia, which is more influenced by French public opinion – historically more skeptical about vaccines. There, the proportion of adults with at least one shot on Saturday is 72 percent, well below Flanders.

In Brussels, which has only vaccinated 54 percent of its adult population with at least one vaccination, the problem is even deeper.

The international character of the city, which is home to the EU institutions and NATO as well as 182 nationalities, is a major challenge, said Inge Neven, COVID-19 crisis manager for Brussels.

“Some do not have a doctor or the necessary digital skills, while others are in a difficult socio-economic situation,” she said. “More than every tenth citizen does not receive an invitation or does not understand it. That makes the vaccination campaign more difficult.”

In response, Brussels has set up outreach programs that use mobile teams to reach groups such as the homeless and undocumented migrants. There are also teams at weekly markets and community halls ready to make an appointment if they manage to convince someone to get their jab.

The city has also reached out to local community leaders to get the message across. “Certain African cultures have particular concerns about the impact of the vaccine on fertility, as does the Roma community,” said Neven.

Brussels’ goal is to have 70 percent of adults vaccinated by mid-July, the Neven described as “ambitious”, especially when compared to other large cities.

“They often do not reach more than 60 percent,” emphasized Neven.

That is not the only cause for concern. Despite the campaign’s wider success, public health officials say it is too early to rule out the possibility of another COVID-19 resurgence in Belgium. The country remains particularly vulnerable because its population is so international and wandering. For example, employees of the EU institutions are likely to travel elsewhere and then to Brussels in the summer, which brings with it the risk of new variants.

Are virologists especially vigilant about the rise of the delta variant and warn of a renewed increase in infections. The highly contagious strain is already spreading across Europe, prompting Belgium to decide on Saturday to ban travelers from the UK.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Beke admitted. “But there is only one answer to this threat: get as many people as possible vaccinated.”

Jillian Deutsch contributed to the reporting.

This article is part of POLITICS‘s Premium Policy Service: Pro Health Care. From drug prices, EMA, vaccines, pharmaceuticals and more, our specialist journalists keep you up to date on the topics of the health policy agenda. E-mail [email¬†protected] for a free trial.

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