To Make Vaccination Programs Work, Communication is Key

Presenting information about vaccination programs at the community level is critical to the success of immunization programs. Photo: ADB
Presenting information about vaccination programs at the community level is critical to the success of immunization programs. Photo: ADB

By Saleha Waseem

Evaluation evidence shows that communication is crucial to combatting vaccine hesitancy and misinformation.

During an online fitness class, my trainer asked me if I would opt for vaccination against COVID-19. I told him I would do so as soon as I had the option. Whether or not to get vaccinated has never been a dilemma as I come from South Asia, where vaccines play a major role in saving lives. The world before vaccines is a world we cannot afford to forget.

Not convinced, the trainer enquired if I was aware that the COVID-19 vaccine could alter the recipient’s DNA. I argued with scientific facts that dispute this claim but very quickly realized I had lost the debate to the information the trainer had read on social media.

This is just one example of vaccine hesitancy, defined by the World Health Organization as a “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccination despite availability of vaccination services”. It has been a major challenge for immunization programs the world over since vaccines were developed in the 1800s. In 2019, WHO named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten threats to global health.

A study by the medical journal Lancet shows that among multiple factors influencing vaccine decisions, trust in the importance, safety, and effectiveness of vaccines, along with compatibility of vaccination with religious beliefs, were key. This can only be achieved through effective communication.

Successful vaccination campaigns require proactive communication strategies to inform the population and address vaccine concerns and hesitancy, according to a recent ADB-supported study. Ensuring that vaccines reach their intended beneficiaries requires outreach and public messaging.

Effective outreach and communications ensure that governments are aware of the various vaccine options and understand their role in it, and thereby take ownership. For those who receive vaccines, it helps curtail disinformation and misinformation and prevents its negative consequences. If concerned authorities do not proactively communicate facts about the vaccines, false information will prevail and derail the vaccination campaigns. 

Immunization programs that have performed poorly have attributed it to a lack of communication.

Evaluations of immunization programs that have performed poorly have attributed it to a lack of communication. This was the case during the 1976 United States swine flu outbreak and 2009 influenza A(H1N1) outbreak in Southeast Asia. More recently, during the large 2019 measles outbreak in Samoa, a lack of clear and accessible information about the side effects of vaccines led to the vaccination rate plummeting to 31%.

Communication strategies, media involvement and strategic engagement of stakeholders for new vaccine introduction can play a positive role, as the case of India for the pentavalent and Hib vaccines demonstrates. Messaging from local leaders, celebrities, and other credible individuals, can contribute a great deal. While lessons from former crises are all useful and relevant, the current situation is unprecedented and calls for extraordinary efforts.

The WHO, in partnership with the United Kingdom, has launched a campaign to raise awareness of misinformation around COVID-19 and encourage individuals to report false or misleading content online. Facebook has banned misinformation about all vaccines from the platform and announced it will remove posts with false claims about all vaccines. Other international finance institutions and relevant organizations should also make more effort to proactively disseminate information on all aspects of the vaccines.

International financial organizations have set aside substantial resources to finance the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines. And rightly so. It is the only way to limit the spread of the virus is through mass vaccination.

But financing is just the starting point. Delivering vaccines is a complex process, containing many moving parts including strategic and proactive communications. Engaging with those unsure about inoculations will go a long way toward optimizing the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.