By Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, Regional Director for Africa, World Health Organization & Chebet Chikumbu, Regional Director for Southern and East Africa, Global Citizen
“My family’s problem is the fake news they get on social media. They have no confidence in getting a vaccine once it becomes available to them.”
These are the words of Nomthandazo Xaba from Johannesburg, one of a group of young people on a Fellowship programme with international advocacy organisation Global Citizen.
The views held by Nomthandazo’s family are reflected in families across the continent, amid an “infodemic” of fake news and misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines that is sweeping Africa and sparking scepticism about the vaccines that are our best way to end the pandemic.
According to the World Health Organization, just 1% of Africa’s population has received a COVID-19 vaccine to date. When it comes to vaccinating Africa, there are two key issues: vaccine equity, meaning the vaccines reach Africa’s population; and vaccine confidence, meaning people want to get the vaccine too.
Until recently, our focus has been on vaccine equity, after much of the world’s supply was bought by Europe, Canada, and the United States. But, while vaccine equity remains a challenge, the ongoing lack of confidence in COVID-19 vaccines is increasingly an issue.
WHO’s health experts say people’s worries about COVID-19 vaccines are driven by a variety of factors, from concerns about the quick development of the vaccines and potential side effects, to confusion over vaccine expiry dates, to misinformation.
Misinformation about the vaccines have spread like wildfire online, including unproven treatments and false cures, inaccurate information about the vaccines, and more. This has created a hesitancy complex within our communities, which has the power to cost lives.
How do we overcome this challenge?
Building our confidence in the vaccines is key to ending the pandemic in Africa, and this needs to be addressed through a factual communications strategy driven by our leaders — not just political, but social, religious, and community leaders too.
Clear messaging & factual information
Accurate information needs to be communicated, and ensuring people can get answers to their questions about the vaccines is also essential.
One platform working on this is the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA), a first-of-its-kind African initiative to combat health misinformation online.
Launched by WHO and a network of fact-checking organizations and leading public health bodies, the initiative’s Viral Facts Africa creates health fact checks, explainers, myth busters, and more, all specifically designed to share on social media.
Vaccine communication should focus on community structures, and engaging key members in sharing accurate health information widely.
Another area where community involvement is very much needed is in sharing personal experiences of getting vaccinated to help reassure those on the fence.
“I think people only want to see people who have been vaccinated tell their stories,” continues Nomthandazo.
Global Citizen’s Vax Because platform seeks to help people do just that, via a website where people globally can read about and share vaccine experiences, as well as find expert answers to their questions.
When uncertainty is rife, strong leadership is key. The majority of Africa’s leaders have aligned with and driven the African Union’s continental strategy on COVID-19.