“Although the COVID-19 pandemic continues to influence populations around the world, the development and distribution of vaccines offer relief. However, the overall success of the global vaccination program will depend on where, and how, information about the vaccines’ safety and efficacy is communicated. It will also depend on engagement with, and by, the public.”
By Ms. Irene Musila

Vaccine hesitancy is, in part, a social information problem

Vaccines are one of the most important achievements of modern medicine. However, their acceptance is only partial. In 2020, the WHO listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten threats to world health. With regards to COVID-19, there is concern globally that vaccine hesitancy might jeopardise reaching the levels of vaccination needed to achieve herd immunity.
Ending the COVID-19 pandemic will require unprecedented collective action. In addition to strategies such as social distancing, hand washing, sanitising and wearing masks, the global population must choose to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Consequently, communication that encourages vaccine uptake have critically important implications for public health.

Social media is a significant source of health and medical information

In this digital age, social media can play an important role in communicating health information. Social media allows transparency and social conversations around public health. More than at any other time in human history, we have the capacity to share information about our vaccine experiences – the COVID-19 pandemic is the first-ever global health crisis in the age of social media.
During this pandemic, we have witnessed how social media can be used to track any effects of the vaccine – both positive and negative – which means we have a broad view of the impact of the vaccine. For the last year, the spread of pandemic information has spread faster than the virus itself and in recent months, the spread of the information regarding the vaccine has spread faster than vaccination rates. Today, people across the globe can share information about their vaccine experiences. These can create an enabling environment for even more people to share their vaccine experiences – ultimately normalising the COVID-19 vaccination.
How can social media help address COVID vaccine hesitancy?

Healthcare organisations

Healthcare organisations can use various communication methods like social media and blogs to spread awareness about the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines. Social media is especially critical in sharing data on the safety and efficacy of authorised vaccines, which can encourage individuals to get vaccinated.

Healthcare professionals
Healthcare professionals can use targeted health communication campaigns with the aid of experts in social media. Targeted communication, based on sociodemographic factors and personalised social media usage, might increase vaccination rates.
Senior leaders
Senior leaders can be vaccine champions and share stories on social media, blogs, and other channels. This can foster trust and reduce vaccine hesitancy by empowering the public to get vaccinated.
Personalized views
In today’s world, leaders, celebrities, and influencers all impact public behavior via the information, views and content they share. Therefore, everything shared by these groups of people will create an impact and determine how their followers react to the message. Testimonials from well known people who have been vaccinated may help correct common misconceptions.
There is a risk

Social media is equally efficient at spreading information as misinformation and it allows transparency and social conversations around public health. With so much information being released every single minute, vaccination misinformation is also prevalent on social media. It has the potential to decrease public confidence in the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

The biggest concern is that anyone can publish anything on social media and stylistically there is not necessarily any difference between somebody who does not know what they are talking about and somebody who does. So it is very hard for people to distinguish between good information and bad information.
In April 2021, AHB hosted a webinar to discuss challenges in COVID-19 vaccine access, procurement, financing, delivery and uptake and public-private partnerships and how they can take us forward in achieving vaccine coverage in Africa. One of the key takeaways of the session was that even if we can access the necessary supplies of the vaccine and the logistics are in place for vaccine delivery, there is still the challenge of providing the public accurate information so that there is sufficient vaccine uptake. Therefore, it is critical that communities have a voice in the vaccination programmes that are rolled out across the continent. The budget for vaccine programs must include community sensitization and education that answer people’s questions. It is also vital that leaders, influencers, religious leaders and other key personalities set an example when it comes to getting vaccinated.
Please click on this link to access the webinar report and watch the webinar video.