Africa: Women in Health – Vaccine Safety Prof On Her Passion for Making a Difference

Professor Johanna Catharina Meyer, a pharmacist turned academic and then vaccine expert and advocate, lives her life with many mottos – her main one being – “life is an echo, what you put in is what you’ll get out”. She laughs after giving her full name – strong Afrikaans names and says, “Everyone knows me as Hannelie.”

Meyer is a full professor in the Department of Public Health Pharmacy and Management in the School of Pharmacy at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU). With a CV over 11 pages long, it is difficult to summarise every aspect of her remarkable, almost 40-year career. But, she says, there are three distinct highlights – her time as a community pharmacist, mostly in Tzaneen; her move into academia as a lecturer and researcher; and later, when she got involved with the South African Vaccination and Immunisation Centre (SAVIC), of which she is now the head.

An Africa free of vaccine-preventable diseases

In 2018, Meyer was appointed to the National Immunisation Safety Expert Committee (NISEC). She is currently serving as chair. She explains that NISEC is a ministerial-appointed advisory committee on vaccine safety tasked with the assessment of reported adverse events following immunisation for all vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccines. She is also serving on the ministerial appointed National Advisory Group on Immunisation and the Board of the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA).

Between family and career, she is clearly juggling a lot but managed to squeeze in a Zoom interview with Spotlight from her office at the university. On the office wall behind her is an impressive collection of degrees, beginning with her Bachelors degree in Pharmacy obtained from North West University (Potchefstroom) in 1983.

Academic turned vaccine expert and advocate

In 2014, Meyer first got involved with SAVIC when the then-head of SAVIC, Professor Jeffrey Mphahlele, asked her to help with the development of training materials and cold chain requirements for the Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine being rolled out in schools. A few months later, Professor Rose Burnet who replaced Mphahlele as the head of SAVIC, asked Meyer to formalise her relationship with SAVIC and become an official member. According to Meyer, Burnet was a huge inspiration and mentor to her and also introduced her to the social aspects of vaccination like vaccine hesitancy.

SAVIC, Meyer explains, is a public-private-academic partnership between the National Department of Health, the vaccine industry, academic institutions, and other stakeholders like the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund. Within SMU, it operates as a multi-school and multi-departmental organisation with academics from different health specialties.

“We’ve got a vision of an African continent free of vaccine-preventable diseases,” she says.

Meyer says she has always been a passionate advocate for vaccination but since COVID-19, fighting vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation has become part of her daily routine.

“What was very disappointing for me during that period [when the vaccines were rolled out], we were thinking people are going to get into fist fights to go and get the vaccines, but many people didn’t want to get the vaccine,” Meyer says. “Unfortunately, you had these people spreading the misinformation about the vaccines and eventually, it also had a negative impact on the uptake of the routine EPI [extended programme on vaccination] childhood vaccines.”

Meyer says vaccine hesitancy is very complex. It can range from outright refusing a vaccine; being hesitant about a vaccine and not taking it; being hesitant about a vaccine but eventually taking it; and demanding a vaccine. Concerns around vaccine safety are a big driver of hesitancy, she says.

“It’s [also] specific to a vaccine, so you can be hesitant towards the COVID-19 vaccine, but not towards, for example, the measles vaccine or the influenza vaccine. And it’s also context-specific, so it depends on factors, just to name a few, such as socioeconomic background, the environment, culture, individual beliefs, perceptions, and the health system. So, you always need to take that context into consideration as well. It’s very complex [and] a lot of intervention is going to be needed to build vaccine confidence.”

Meyer worked as a community pharmacist for just over a decade before she went into academia, but her passion for pharmacy remains intact. “Pharmacists play a very important role in public health,” she says. “Pharmacists really came to the party [during the COVID-19 pandemic] and they played a huge role in rolling out the vaccines for the public, putting up those vaccination sites and helping with the vaccination.”

Stepping up during the COVID-19 pandemic

Meyer was appointed as the head of SAVIC in 2021 – the year in which South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination programme was launched. “When COVID-19 came, we [SAVIC and NISEC] were right there in the firing line so, we were overloaded,” Meyers says as she recalls that period.

She says that even before the actual rollout, she and other members of SAVIC helped the National Department of Health with developing the training materials and training webinars for healthcare workers on the rollout of the vaccines. As chair of NISEC, Meyer also worked with the health department and SAHPRA to establish the COVID-19 vaccine safety surveillance network for South Africa. This included the introduction of the Med Safety App for reporting adverse events following immunisation as part of the African Union Smart Safety Solutions (AU-3S) programme to strengthen pharmacovigilance across Africa.

When asked where she was and how she felt when the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine were administered to healthcare workers in February 2021, Meyer says she remembers it well because it was on her son’s wedding day.

Through NISEC, Meyer and the rest of the committee were monitoring and assessing the adverse events reported by people after they got the COVID-19 vaccine. It was their responsibility to determine whether the reported events were linked to the vaccine or something else.

“We used to meet four times a year as a committee to assess these cases that are being reported for all the other [childhood] vaccines like measles. Then quickly, we had to increase the membership and expertise of the committee and since 2021, we are meeting weekly, every Friday from 8:00 until 10:00,” she says.

Making a difference

Passionate about community engagement, Meyer says she finds great fulfilment in making a difference in the lives of others. She believes we can all make a difference – even if we do something small as she recites a quote by Margaret Mead – ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’. “What I always say to my kids and students, or colleagues when they get depressed or discouraged when things go wrong, or they work so hard and things don’t work out or they don’t see immediate results. I always say remember, what you do now, will always come back to you. Maybe you’re going to work so hard for five years or ten years, but eventually ‘good’ is going to come back to you,” Meyer says.

She says she often has to remind herself of this during some community outreach vaccination campaigns she has been part of through SMU.

“Sometimes you have a vaccination campaign in the community and then there’s not a lot of people. And then we always say, you know what, if we have vaccinated one child today, we have achieved something because we have prevented this child from [getting] a deadly vaccine-preventable disease,” she says.

“What is important for me, where I am now in this space, is to inspire people like young healthcare workers. I have a huge passion for healthcare workers to empower them to be advocates for vaccination – to empower them so that they have confidence and can influence other people because they are in the best position to actually influence others because they are trusted.”

‘A bit of a workaholic’

Meyer describes herself as a bit of a “workaholic”. She fondly recalls her students throwing her a birthday party a few years ago and one student writing – “Prof, Happy Birthday! Please take the day off. Don’t worry, we’ll keep working, we promise.”

She says her husband of 40 years, Hennie Meyer helps her try to switch off by encouraging her to go on daily walks with their Yorkshire Terriers Zoey and Liam. “I used to read quite a bit, but these days you know I end up just reading academic work. And then you won’t believe it, but I like to crochet. I’m not an expert but I like doing that,” she says.

Meyer has two sons, one a mechanical engineer who works in the Netherlands and the other a quantity surveyor working in Ireland.

She sent Spotlight a screenshot of a group chat with her sons where they recall the mottos and quotes of hers from childhood that stuck with them. These include – “When you say you are going to do something, do it to the best of your ability, and see it through”, “You reap what you sow”, “Be nice to others and they’ll be nice to you” and “Mind over matter”.

Some of these mottos came in handy as the pressure on Meyer and her colleagues escalated after the start of the COVID-19 vaccination programme.

“It was almost like I don’t even know what happened in my life during that time,” she says.

*This article is part of Spotlight’s Women in Health series where we celebrate women and their contribution to the health system as well as highlight issues pertinent to women’s health and well-being.

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