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Leveraging the power of social media to build confidence in vaccines

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UNICEF, Facebook, Yale, and Public Good Projects have partnered to combat misinformation surrounding COVID-19 vaccines.

As part of the United Nations General Assembly last month, Facebook hosted a virtual session on ‘Using Social Media to Build Confidence in Vaccines’. The session provided information on vaccine availability and how communicating about vaccines is critical to increasing their uptake worldwide. In addition, this conversation explored the challenges of vaccination communications today and highlighted new opportunities for public-private collaboration to build vaccine demand in more effective ways.

Mistrust and a lack of confidence in COVID-19 vaccines have a damaging impact on ongoing routine immunisation efforts. The session discussed how to counter misinformation and build public trust, confidence, and acceptance of vaccines worldwide. The collaboration between UNICEF, Facebook, Yale, and Public Good Projects (PGP) was also highlighted.

According to panellist Diane Summers, Senior Advisor, Immunization Demand, UNICEF, since the beginning of the pandemic, the media spotlight has covered the development and rollout of vaccines with both good and negative press. “Without trust and accurate information, people hesitate to get vaccinated. And without people being vaccinated, their lives are at risk, and the virus will continue to thrive. So, vaccines are key to protecting people’s lives and ending the pandemic. But to do that, we need to have public trust and confidence in vaccines. At the same time, people have understandable questions since the COVID-19 vaccine is new.”

She highlighted a recent study of Kenyan youth that found that two-thirds were hesitant to get vaccinated because of the inadequate information available. The youth felt that they would be more likely to get vaccinated if the information was openly shared.

When asked about how organisations should respond, she stressed that they need to learn, listen, and understand the concerns and issues to develop vaccine communications. The partnership between UNICEF, Facebook, Yale, and PGP is looking to understand behavioural insights and rapidly test messages tailored to different people’s needs. This will ensure that the messages resonate and reassure the public.

Panellist Professor Saad Omer, Inaugural Director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, said: “We have known for a while that vaccine acceptance is a spectrum. On the one hand, there are those who would refuse all vaccines under all circumstances. Fortunately, they are usually a very small proportion of the population. But, on the other hand, there are vociferous acceptors of these vaccines, those who demand vaccines actively and then there are those who are on the fence. In this pandemic, what has been different is that those who demand vaccines actively have been way more vocal than normal,” he explained.

Dr Joe Smyser, CEO, PGP, stressed that how people feel about vaccines reflects their values and place in society. During the middle of an ongoing pandemic, institutions in society are under attack because of a lack of resources. While public health departments, governments and healthcare organisations are trying to respond to a pandemic, they are also trying to respond to misinformation circulating on social media at the same time.

“If firefighters have 15 things to do, in addition to fighting a house fire, that house fire is going to burn brighter and longer than it would have otherwise. The only way we’re going to be able to do that at scale is through partnerships,” he said.

Kang-Xing “KX” Jin, Head of Health, Facebook, said that vaccine hesitancy could be combatted by leveraging the unique properties of AI platforms to get good information out at scale. In terms of specific approaches, there were three things that Jin found to be effective so far. The first is getting people’s questions answered.

He said: “Since the start of COVID-19, over two billion people have gotten credible information about the virus and vaccines on Facebook. In addition, some of our research across five countries found that this messaging resulted in a three per cent increase in beliefs in facts such as COVID-19 vaccines have been tested for safety.”

The second big thing is talking to friends and family about getting vaccines. Experts have said that people are more likely to get a vaccine when they see that people they trust are doing so. The third approach is making it easier to get vaccinated and get access to health services.

He shared that people can now use WhatsApp to find out whether they’re eligible for a vaccine and book an appointment in some countries. For instance, in Indonesia, 500,000 medical workers registered to do this over WhatsApp in the first five days of the service being available. That’s reportedly a third of all healthcare workers in the country.

UNICEF reached out to partners PGP and Yale to set up a vaccination demand observatory to counter misinformation. Each partner brought their unique knowledge and experience to the table. This included social listening, analytics, and behavioural insights generation, and the third was to design effective communication interventions.

Summers explained: “It’s a set up similar to a disease surveillance system, where the partnership sets up social, local level, social listening programmes that can track and analyse people’s vaccine conversations, questions and concerns, and provide recommendations to local-level health agencies to have real-time actionable insights and communication interventions to respond to that misinformation.”

Some of the initial learnings of the partnership were that the mix of images and illustrations work well in this medium and that the content should be context-specific and be tested in multiple languages. Another lesson was that value-based campaigns shifted attitudes towards vaccine confidence across the board and worked as powerful tools to change people’s attitudes. The values that were emphasised in these messages were highly local. The panellists all stressed that in a pandemic situation, for effective communication, language matters.

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