This headline caught my eye: India Has Plenty of Coronavirus Vaccines But Few Takers. And upon clicking on the link, the article was followed by stories of an anti-vaccine protest organized on Facebook that cut off access to a mass vaccination site at Dodger Stadium. And a new study reveals that COVID-19 vaccine acceptance is falling globally and in the U.S.
From Delhi to Los Angeles, vaccine resistance is news. But it’s hardly new.
In the early 2000s, when I was working on India’s polio vaccination project for the World Health Organization, mothers in rural villages hid their swaddled newborns underneath beds and clay cookstoves. Sparked by whispers about a vaccine rumored to render their sons sterile, their hesitancy was understandable. Concerning, even.
We also faced organized and occasionally hostile resistance. Fueled by propaganda leaflets, people threw sacred animal blood from the rooftops to repel vaccination teams when they visited and revisited their villages bearing a multi-dose polio vaccine that needed to be administered starting in infancy. We learned valuable lessons during what was the largest-ever internationally coordinated public health effort—it took us really close to eradicating polio globally, with the disease eliminated from pretty much the entire planet except the only two endemic countries of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
By meeting vaccine opposition head on over the years, we have a better sense of which strategies are effective at changing hearts and minds. My experience—going door-to-door in marginalized and hard-to-reach communities across India and Nigeria—has informed what I know we need to do today.
With Covid-19, the goal is to vaccinate a big enough chunk of the entire human population to interrupt the chain of transmission. That needs to happen right away, before more contagious virus variants potentially wreak havoc on the effectiveness of those vaccines already rolling out.
Social media is our frontline platform. With something as highly politically charged and visible as the vaccines, Twitter and Facebook are being used to organize support for false notions and amplify malicious messages across the globe with the quickness of lightning.
Those of us working with countries and states on behalf of public health can’t afford to waste time playing whack-a-mole as rumors pop up and misinformation spreads.
We need to be proactive. We need to be smart. Artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced social media analytics can help.
Employing these technologies along with other strategies—in good old-fashioned partnership with communities—will allow us to prepare for and counter rampant rumors and falsehoods.
It’s vital that we identify influencers within the local community, including religious and health leaders. We need to leverage the power of social media and AI in diagnosing the source, sentiment, spread, and speed of the myths and false information. And then we deploy these tools to amplify the voices of influencers to engage with communities and educate families.
The global health agency where I work is exploring the use of advanced analytics, AI and community partnerships to hear and understand what people are saying about COVID-19 vaccines on social media in West and Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. This grassroots monitoring of Facebook and Twitter reveals data on people’s feelings, their hesitancy or suspicions while they are still smoldering, prior to being co-opted by special interests. After pinpointing where exactly the misinformation lies, local advocates and influencers are enlisted to help create an environment of vaccine acceptance by sharing and amplifying customized, culturally-appropriate and appealing messages at frequent intervals, before vaccine resistance rages like wildfire.
Based on lessons learned during the global polio campaign, we will rely on help from faith leaders and sports stars, media personalities like popular cine-stars and youth icons and tribal chiefs, community elders and school teachers. We will unleash trusted doctors, nurses and midwives with messages backed by scientific evidence.
Polio died out because of a vaccine that people ultimately accepted. Acceptance came because of a sustained public health effort coordinated by public and private partners informed by science and buttressed by strong political leadership.
Ending the current pandemic—and the next—requires all that. And Twitter too.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Somesh Kumar is a global public health physician with two decades of experience in policy formulation, advocacy, planning, and implementation for Global Health programs. His work has been focused around increasing access to and strengthening the quality of essential public health services in low and middle income countries including multiple countries across Sub Saharan Africa, South and South East Asia. As Jhpiego’s Senior Director of Global Solutions and Innovations, he provides vision and strategic direction to identify, design, and support the implementation of transformative policy, process, and technology innovations across the domains of RMNCHA, Immunization, Women’s Cancers, Primary Health Care and Private Sector Engagement. Previously, as the Head of Programs and Deputy Country Director of Jhpiego India, Dr. Kumar supported the Government of India (GOI) in development of their national policies and programs on RMNCH services. He has also worked for WHO, CDC, PATH, Government of Norway and has covered the technical domains of Immunization, RMNCH, Primary Health Care and Women’ Cancers. Dr. Somesh has published numerous articles in international peer-reviewed journals and also serves as reviewer for multiple international peer reviewed journals. He speaks English, Hindi and Bengali and is based in Baltimore, MD. @Somesh_KumR