Opinion

Communication, the best shot for vaccination

Nitin Mantri | Updated on May 03, 2021

A strategic dissemination campaign can not only help the govt increase reach and uptake but also fight misinformation

One of the biggest challenges for India in dealing with Covid-19 is that it is a shape-shifter. Constantly mutating and landing blow after blow on the country’s under-prepared public health system, the virus has proved difficult to pin down.

Faced with this elusive disease that most experts knew little about, people are devouring whatever information comes their way, with a complete disregard for the sources. As a result, misinformation has reared its ugly head like a secondary infection. The World Health Organization (WHO) coined the term “infodemic” to describe the over-abundance of false and misleading news, images and videos about the origin, symptoms, management, and impact of the disease. And now, the spread of vaccine-related misinformation threatens to derail the government’s painstakingly mounted defence against Covid-19.

A recent study by researchers from Imperial College London and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine asked 8,000 people in the UK and the US about their willingness to accept a potential Covid-19 vaccine when exposed to misinformation. Before exposure to misinformation, 54.1 per cent of those surveyed in the UK and 42.5 per cent in the US said they would “definitely” accept a vaccine. After being shown online misinformation, that number dropped by 6.2 percentage points in the UK and 6.4 percentage points in the US.

On the ground, this kind of misinformation-fuelled vaccine hesitancy can prove disastrous at a time when India is in the throes of a deadly second wave of the pandemic. Therefore, it is essential that tackling vaccine misinformation be an integral part of the government’s war against the virus. For this, the government will need to prioritise fighting misinformation with clear, impactful communication about vaccine safety.

Communicate to vaccinate

According to a report from The Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of sciences, information and trust rank amongst the key factors determining vaccine uptake.

Communication can play a major role in building trust among people by strategising powerful yet compelling ways to deliver information regarding vaccination.

As our government, supported by health professionals and experts, rallies to facilitate vaccination, it is important to recognise that vaccine-related messaging can be complicated and confusing for the layperson.

Further complicating the situation is the state of constant flux, which has led to an alarming misrepresentation of facts.

What can help in a public health crisis like this are communication campaigns that complement government efforts of prevention and risk management by encouraging behaviour change among the public. Communication strategists and agencies can collaborate with the vaccine stakeholders to design campaigns that amplify important information in the form of audience-friendly content that is more likely to gain visibility while ensuring accuracy. They can also leverage the media to amplify reach.

This has been done before, with great success.

Remember the polio immunisation campaign? Launched initially in 1994, the campaign got a fresh lease of life in 2002 when a top advertising agency was roped in to communicate a simple message: Do Boond Zindagi Ki (two drops of life). The agency worked with the Health Ministry to roll out a blitzkrieg of ads across mass media platforms. The results followed soon enough. According to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the number of polio cases, which stood at 1,600 in 2002, dropped to 42 by 2010.

Even today, it is easy to recall the tagline Do Boond Zindagi Ki, delivered in actor Amitabh Bachchan’s baritone voice, over televisions and radios, for parents across the country.

Imagine what a similar campaign can do for the Covid-19 vaccine uptake. It is well-documented that vulnerable populations are more receptive to culturally and socially aligned messages. The government must, therefore, focus on effective communication strategies that can map vaccine messaging and delivery media.

For instance, online platforms, television, radio, and mainstream media work as urban media. In peri-urban and rural areas, local channels of communication, such as vernacular newspapers, posters, miking and even panchayat meetings, work as effective vehicles of health information.

According to a WHO publication, communication helped in the success of diphtheria immunisation programmes in Russia in the mid-1990s. There had been a significant drop in the uptake of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine after the first round of doses. Communication interventions emphasised the need for second and third doses following major outbreaks. After two months, various media were cited by one-third of the vaccinated population of Novgorod city as one of the means through which they learned about the need for additional doses of the vaccine. In Voronezh, higher exposure to media messages correlated with higher coverage rates for the same communication intervention period.

While promoting the benefits of vaccination, it is equally important to address concerns on vaccine safety and possible side-effects. Public health authorities can work with communicators to build and maintain transparency and share reliable sources of evidence-based information.

The media can also play a part here as a key communicator in demystifying vaccines. Stories on vaccine safety and informative interviews with experts, health workers, and government health officials can help address people’s fears and inform health-related decisions.

A game-changing collaboration of vaccine stakeholders, supported by communication strategists, is the need of the hour.

A strategic communication plan can not only help the government increase vaccine reach and uptake but also fight misinformation. By developing engaging material that addresses information needs and concerns, tailoring messages for diverse audiences, ensuring transparency, and collaborating with different stakeholders, communication experts can help the government deliver the knock-out punch to this wily virus in the people versus pandemic bout.

The writer is President, The International Communications Consultancy Organisation

Published on May 03, 2021

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