,A Covid-19 vaccination centre in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia is almost empty, a vivid example of the way the country's immunisation effort is hamstrung by fake news and widespread mistrust. — AFP
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It's getting close to lunchtime and a Covid-19 vaccination centre in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, is almost empty, a vivid example of the way the country's immunisation effort is hamstrung by fake news and widespread mistrust.
As a fourth coronavirus wave threatens, official data show that only 15% of the population of 6.9 million people has been fully vaccinated, far below the EU average of 53.3%.
"Ever since the start of vaccinations we have been lagging last," Health Minister Stoycho Katsarov said in a recent interview.
On the streets of Sofia, it's easy to spot the attitudes that have led to the low uptake.
"Absolutely not!" replies 45-year-old construction worker Georgy Dragoev, when asked by AFP if he would get vaccinated.
"I think that they're just spreading panic," he says, while taking his lunch break on a bench outside the vaccination centre.
"If this coronavirus exists and I catch it, I will somehow manage to beat it," he adds.
'Not an easy decision'
A recent Gallup poll showed that a total of 41.8% of Bulgarians said they didn't plan to get jabbed.
Even some of those who came to get vaccinated have had their reservations.
Accountant Katerina Nikolova, 39, told AFP that it "was not an easy decision" for her, saying the expedited clinical trial procedure for the Covid-19 vaccines worried her.
Outright fake news about the virus has also played a role.
Since mid-March, AFP has been running a fact-checking service in Bulgarian, and in that period, half the articles published have been related to coronavirus disinformation.
The theories range from the claim that the vaccine leaves magnetic chips implanted in people's arms – shared thousands of times on Facebook – to pictures of French football fans' victory celebrations after the 2018 World Cup being falsely presented as being from protests against France's "health pass".
Health Minister Katsarov has partly blamed Bulgarians' "susceptibility to conspiracy theories" for the low vaccine uptake but Nikolova said she was also confused by the conflicting views of experts invited on TV.
Such guests are often asked to comment on areas outside their expertise or are allowed to present scientifically dubious opinions.
One of the voices invited to contribute to television debates, Atanas Mangarov, is infectious diseases associate professor and the head of the Covid-19 care unit at a Sofia hospital but has spread discredited theories on the virus, insisting mask-wearing and vaccines aren't necessary and promoting herbal teas as a treatment.
Media expert Nelly Ognyanova says that the media have contributed to the poor standard of information.