The virtual workshop covered topics like ‘New and Innovative Vaccine Approaches,’ ‘Fighting Vaccine Misinformation & COVID-19 Disinformation,’ ‘Identifying and Combating Misinformation in India and Africa,’ and ‘Connecting Fact-Checkers, Scientists, and the Public.’
The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us that vaccine hesitancy, fueled with mis- and disinformation generates mistrust among communities. Vaccine-related misinformation has a massive human cost to it, with numerous examples in recent years of people dying, or being killed because of it.
To address health misinformation related to vaccination from the perspective of innovative vaccine approaches, DataLEADS, in collaboration with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, conducted a virtual roundtable on Thursday, titled ‘Securing the Future: Creating an Unhindered Pathway for Vaccine Innovation by Addressing Mis/Disinformation
The event brought together experts in various fields, including doctors, policymakers, journalists, and social impact professionals. They discussed vaccine-related misinformation, vaccine hesitancy, and how to communicate accurate scientific information.
The virtual workshop covered topics like ‘New and Innovative Vaccine Approaches,’ ‘Fighting Vaccine Misinformation & COVID-19 Disinformation,’ ‘Identifying and Combating Misinformation in India and Africa,’ and ‘Connecting Fact-Checkers, Scientists, and the Public.’ These discussions explored the challenges and potential solutions to these critical issues.
Key experts included Dr. N.K Arora, Chairman of India’s Covid-19 working group, Dr. Salim Abdool Karim, Director of CAPRISA and Special Advisor to the WHO Director-General, Motunrayo Joel, Deputy Director and Health Researcher at Africa Check, and Jaya Shreedhar, a Senior Health Media Advisor at Internews.
Smrithi Bhagi, Director of Operations, Partnerships, and Communications, delivered the opening note.
Stressing the crucial role of government and the global community in Research and Development and vaccine access, Dr Arora said: “India has invested nearly 2,500 crores in transforming our vaccine manufacturing ecosystem over the past three years. We are now a significant player, but we must prioritize accessibility, affordability, and equity. These are essential for reaching underserved populations, much like Africa during the COVID-19 crisis.”
A survey by LocalCircles found that in October 2021, 7.5% of Indian adults were hesitant about COVID-19 vaccines. Just a month later, this number rose to 12.3%. According to the WHO, vaccine hesitancy is a top global health threat, worsened by the spread of vaccine misinformation on social media.
Dr Joel said: “I believe that media literacy is the starting point for countering misinformation. We emphasize media literacy because it empowers individuals with the critical skills and tools needed to discern fact from fiction on their own. In an age where the sources of reliable information can be obscured, individuals lacking these skills become more susceptible to the dangers of misinformation and disinformation.”
The ever-expanding internet ecosystem, where false information about vaccines, health, and other topics is spread by a variety of sources, has created both tremendous opportunities and daunting challenges.
Jaya Shreedhar said: “In a world where health and vaccine information swirls in multiple directions, from experts and governments to communities, and also from journalists and the public on social media, a crucial trust space has been overlooked. To bridge this gap, we’ve fostered closer, ongoing engagement. We’ve offered courses for journalists to enhance vaccine coverage, facilitated media dialogues, and convened roundtables to foster relationships with local experts and establish reporting guidelines.”
In India, false messages on social media once claimed vaccines harmed children, leading parents to avoid measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccines. During COVID-19, misinformation and conspiracy theories against vaccines and developers went viral on social media, threatening public health.
To combat this, DataLEADS conducted workshops across India called VaxCheck during the height of the pandemic. More recently, the company launched a global infodemic management course, addressing vaccine hesitancy and misinformation as core themes.
Syed Nazakat, Founder of DataLEADS, explained: “In today’s global information ecosystem, a profound shift has reshaped how content is created and disseminated, altering our relationship with information. For the first time in history, we are inundated with more data than we can digest, making it challenging to discern what’s true. With today’s discussion, we hope to enhance our grasp of how content creation contributes to misinformation and equip us with the tools to combat vaccine misinformation.”
The workshop engaged participants with various skills to identify vaccine-related misinformation and emerging trends that could harm communities. It aims to start a conversation, involving communication and public health experts, on how different fields can work together to be better prepared in the future.
Emphasizing the role of vaccine mandates, Dr. Salim Abdool Karim said, “Vaccines bring many benefits, notably reducing asymptomatic infections, clinical cases, hospitalizations, long-term COVID-19, and secondary transmission. Yet, it’s not just vaccines; vaccine mandates also deliver significant benefits. A study comparing France, Lithuania, and Poland revealed the dramatic advantages of vaccine mandates. So, by increasing vaccine coverage through mandates, we amplify their effectiveness and achieve greater public health gains.”
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