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Need to leverage communication capabilities to strengthen rollout of Covid-19 vaccine: Experts

Shardul Nautiyal, MumbaiWednesday, January 13, 2021, 08:00 Hrs  [IST]

As India gets ready to be vaccinated against Covid-19 pandemic, there is no better time to leverage all communication capabilities to underscore the importance of life-saving vaccines to strengthen their accessibility and equitable distribution in a timely manner, according to experts associated with the development.

Today, in India and globally, experts, scientists and policy makers have realised that vaccine development is very different from drug development. It warrants more time, awareness campaigns, greater focus and stricter protocols so that the safe and efficacious vaccine for Covid-19 reaches the masses.

To further ensure vaccine safety, vaccine makers must also urgently ensure that clinical trial subjects are made aware of clinical trial protocols which is again a subject matter of communication.

Says Christina A D’souza, Healthcare Practice Lead, SPAG, “There has been much news coverage or opinion about the mammoth scale of the task of immunising over a billion people against Covid-19 pandemic. So, what should we know? First, communications should meet public purpose. Second, it should translate domain knowledge into appropriate messaging and information, aimed at creating trust in the vaccines. Third, communications should include well-designed campaigns, disease awareness programmes and audience-specific messaging, using the full range of traditional, online and social media channels.”

Singapore based SPAG Asia is a reputed healthcare advocacy firm with a reach across the APAC region.

From the Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP) launched in 1985 to Mission Indradhanush in 2014, India is no stranger to large-scale immunisation programmes. At the same time, however, 1.5 million lives are lost every year from vaccine preventable diseases, 500,000 of them in India.

“On one of the key metrics called “vaccine coverage” – the percentage of the population that has been vaccinated – there is cause for serious concern. Globally, that number has stagnated at 86 per cent for nearly 5 years and it was just 62 per cent in India in 2016,” explains Christina.

The UIP covers 12 diseases from TB and polio to adult vaccines for Japanese encephalitis and pneumococcal conjugate vaccines for pneumonia, blood infections and bacterial meningitis. Despite the proven efficacy of vaccines, 14 million children were not vaccinated in 2019, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

“Add another 5.9 million children who were only partially vaccinated, meaning they received the first dose but not the subsequent doses. Three-fifths of these nearly 20 million children live in just 10 countries, a list that includes India. So why is vaccine coverage so low (including in India)? Is it a matter of attitude?” Christina questions.

In 2019, a survey of 140,000 people from 140 countries on people’s attitudes towards science and major health challenges was published by The Wellcome Trust, a London-based research charity. The Wellcome Global Monitor asked three questions to ascertain public perceptions and attitudes towards vaccines. Did people think it was important that children be vaccinated? Did they think vaccines were safe? and did they think vaccines were effective?

Overall, an average of 92 per cent respondents believed that it was important for children to be vaccinated. Globally, only 7 per cent of those surveyed disagreed that vaccines were safe. And only 5 per cent didn’t agree that vaccines were effective. Yet, the vaccination coverage has stagnated at 86 per cent. In India, 98 per cent of the respondents believed that vaccines were safe, and a similar number agreed they were effective. Yet only 62 per cent of the children below 5 were fully vaccinated.

To help explain the reasons for these contradictions, a reference to the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) defines a concept called ‘vaccine hesitancy’: a delay in or refusal to completing or refusal to vaccination and immunisation schedules. They point to three factors: complacency, convenience and confidence.

“This is where healthcare communications, included as an integral part of the overall vaccination and immunisation programme, can step in to address all three factors. When it comes to vaccines, healthcare communications should move the needle from vaccine hesitancy to vaccine confidence,” Christina concludes.

 
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