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Effective communication key to tackling vaccine disinformation

By Standard Digital - January 1st 1970
A nurse administering Covid-19 vaccine to a Police officer at the Standard Media Group HQ, June 28, 2021. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Covid-19 vaccines are arguably the most important health products of 2021.

They are saving millions of lives globally. There should be no doubt about that. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Africa, where, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 2 per cent of the population has been vaccinated so far.

While this is largely due to the initial unavailability of the vaccines, a sizeable number of people is reluctant to get the shots, even as vaccines become increasingly available.

A recent survey by the Africa CDC indicated that vaccine hesitancy is a major cause for concern, as it compounds the Covid-19 threat. Respondents viewed the new Covid-19 vaccines as less safe than vaccinations in general, while more than half said the seriousness of Covid-19 is exaggerated. 

With thousands of new infections and hundreds of deaths each day across Africa, one would expect to see thousands queuing to get the jab. Hesitancy is rife, even among health workers who should be the vaccine ambassadors. Isn’t it ironical that when Covid-19 hit, we worried about finding a vaccine, yet when vaccines are finally here, we now doubt them? Fear about the vaccines can be linked to lack of information and misinformation to far-fetched conspiracy theories. 

Natural remedies

Myths abound on vaccine safety and effectiveness. Ask around, you will be surprised to hear people’s reasons for not getting the jab. The list is endless! Some claim that vaccines are a ploy to kill Africans, while others believe that Covid-19 does not affect Africans or that natural remedies are safer than vaccines.

Even more ridiculous is that some still believe that Covid-19 does not exist, even after it has killed millions. We are also facing an infodemic, where people are receiving excessive information, including false or misleading bits in digital and physical environments.

To deal with vaccine hesitancy, governments are resorting to drastic measures. In Kenya, for instance, where less than 3 per cent of the 47 million population has been vaccinated, the government ordered all civil servants to get the shots or risk disciplinary action. The order was later retracted. The country’s Parliament is also due to consider a motion to bar unvaccinated people from certain public and private spaces and services. Should it get to this point? Isn’t there a better way of addressing vaccine hesitancy? 

Building trust

The answer lies in proper communication and inclusivity. Engaging with communities and being responsive to their concerns and information needs is crucial to building trust. There is a need for constructive education providing information that will allow individuals to make informed decisions.

It took a lot of time and effort to raise awareness on the virus and prevention measures. The same should be done to promote vaccination. Restoring trust in vaccines requires demystifying myths and adopting a people-centered, transparent, and inclusive communications outreach. 

To ensure inclusivity, there should be strategic engagement of all stakeholders at national and community levels, including religious and traditional leaders, community mobilisation, mass media and social media interventions. Community leaders can be mobilised and trained to engage and disseminate messages through local forums such as barazas and chamas

Religious leaders are instrumental in shaping public opinion in Africa, a largely religious continent. Whatever the pastor or Imam says is believed by most of their congregants. Their role in influencing decision-making cannot be overstated.

A good example was in 2014, when there was a standoff between Catholic priests in Kenya and the government over tetanus vaccines after the church leaders called for a boycott of the World Health Organisation-approved vaccination, claiming they had proof of the doses being laced with a fertility-inhibiting hormone. 

Vaccine promotion efforts should also address the implications of dealing with a heterogeneous population. People from different age groups, cultures, tribes, religions and education levels have different beliefs and value systems. Myths that exist in one region or country may be entirely different from those in another. As much as the message is one – to encourage people to get vaccinated – they should be customised to suit different audiences. 

Widespread vaccination is a critical tool to help stop the pandemic. People need to believe in science: the vaccine is being administered elsewhere and it is saving lives. But they can only do so when armed with the right information. If no action is taken to sensitize the masses and end the skepticism, we will be fighting a losing battle. Low vaccination rates in Africa give the virus an opportunity to mutate and spin out of control.

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