December 5, 2022

WHO and UK join forces to fight COVID vaccine misinformation in Africa

WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The government of the United Kingdom and the World Health Organization (WHO) have launched a digital campaign to battle misinformation and rumors surrounding COVID-19 vaccines in an effort to bolster vaccination rates in Africa.

Since the onset of the pandemic two years ago, myths and misinformation have plagued online platforms globally, causing mistrust among media and the social media platforms that regulate their reach.

Dr Thierno Balde, the Incident Manager of the COVID-19 response at WHO Regional Office for Africa, has stated misinformation has affected vaccination rates among Africans.

“Widespread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccine safety lowers people’s confidence and creates vaccine hesitancy,” said Balde.

Misinformation and false claims had become so widespread in Angola that the COVID-19 Alliance system was receiving ‘around 100 calls a day from people seeking to clarification on rumors, accessing tests, facts about the disease and how it is transmitted as well as preventive measures,’ according to a WHO statement in Dec. 2020.

One of the more prominent rumors that circulated the country was that ‘COVID-19 doesn’t kill anybody in Angola as [they] are immune due to malaria,” which has been debunked.

In March 2021, WHO and partners created a content production platform to tackle falsehoods and educate African communities about COVID-19.

The platform, Viral Facts Africa, has produced more than 300 digital materials, “reaching more than 200 million people in the African region”, said WHO.

To reinforce those efforts, WHO and the government of the United Kingdom have deployed media campaigns and other methods to go beyond basic fact-checking.

“The campaign interventions proactively showcase the importance and impact of vaccines whilst tackling the main drivers of vaccine hesitancy, which drives up demand,” said Ashley Winter, Head of Strategic Communications with the United Kingdom government.

This type of approach is believed to be more effective than traditional fact-checking, which she said, “may simply amplify false information, cementing it in the audience’s minds.”

The United Kingdom government and WHO have conducted surveys to better understand the thoughts and concerns of Africans hesitating to get the vaccine.

“We also discovered that exposure to false information about COVID-19 vaccines is still high [in Africa] and people feel they need more information to consider COVID-19 vaccines safe,” said Winter.

Angola has also integrated infodemic management into the country’s response to end the pandemic.

“Access to officially verified information is critical regarding COVID-19 prevention as well as when it comes to ensuring the good health of the population,” said Dr Djamila Cabral, WHO representative for Angola in the first year of the pandemic.

Angola, an epidemic phase 3 country, has currently fully vaccinated about 29.5% of its population, according to Reuters.

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