Battling vaccine misinformation in Liberia

As the country responds to an outbreak of polio, UNICEF is working with partners to ensure families receive accurate information – and the polio vaccine.

By Phillip Hatcher-Moore, Benson Ibeabuchi and Dana Toerien
Liberia. A UNICEF health worker talks to people in a village about the polio vaccine.
UNICEF Liberia/2021/Hatcher-Moore
02 July 2021

MONROVIA, Liberia – The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a devastating toll on countries around the world, straining health systems, disrupting children’s education and leaving millions of families struggling to make ends meet. And it is also having additional knock-on effects that are putting children’s lives at risk, including in Liberia.

Liberia was declared free of polio in 2008. But for countries to remain free from polio, children still need to be vaccinated. The COVID-19 pandemic complicated those efforts, forcing countries including Liberia to temporarily suspend routine immunization programmes. But now that many of these programmes are resuming, vaccinators are facing a new problem in addition to the usual logistical ones – convincing parents to allow their children to be vaccinated amidst a pandemic that has seen an explosion of misinformation about vaccines.

Liberia. A midwife takes the blood pressure of a pregnant woman.
UNICEF Liberia/2021/Hatcher-Moore

Comfort Morphre, left, a midwife at the Hydro MERCI Clinic, says she has noticed a growing hesitancy around the polio vaccine in her community. “I can feel the weight [of the misinformation]. I know these people in my community,” she says.

Liberia. A poster showing information about a polio vaccination campaign.
UNICEF Liberia/2021/Hatcher-Moore

To counteract misinformation, UNICEF and partners are supporting the Ministry of Health in providing accurate information about the polio vaccine through radio talk shows, community engagement meetings, SMS, and the printing and distribution of communication materials such as posters and banners.

Liberia. A teacher stands in a classroom.
UNICEF Liberia/2021/Hatcher-Moore

Mohamed Shariff, a teacher at a school in Monrovia, says the current situation is different from previous polio vaccination campaigns he has worked on. “Previously, everyone was taking the polio vaccine,” he says. “Now, because of COVID-19, we have so many refusals…[even though] we’ve been using it for years.”

Liberia. An SMS message about polio vaccines is displayed on a phone.
UNICEF Liberia/2021/Hatcher-Moore

The campaign includes SMS notifications, which are an important way of reaching communities in a country where many people don’t have reliable internet access.

Liberia. a UNICEF Communication for Development consultant speaks with local mothers.
UNICEF Liberia/2021/Hatcher-Moore

Selena Montgomery, a UNICEF Communication for Development consultant, has been speaking with mothers in Grand Cape Mount county, in the northwest of the country, about the importance of vaccines. Selena and her colleagues have been going door-to-door in the area, building trust and ensuring parents have the information they need to make an informed decision about their children’s health.

Liberia. A community mobilization officer with Liberia’s Ministry of Health speaks with a mother.
UNICEF Liberia/2021/Hatcher-Moore

Ummu Paasewe (right), a community mobilization officer with Liberia’s Ministry of Health, has been talking to mothers and encouraging them to vaccinate their children against polio. “We’re trying to reassure them it’s the same kind of oral polio vaccine, but more advanced, to battle the type of polio we are dealing with,” she says.

Liberia. A community mobilization officer holds her daughter.
UNICEF Liberia/2021/Hatcher-Moore

Ummu’s daughter, Rahima, attends school in Monrovia. Ummu, who is expecting her third child, says both her children are vaccinated and that she definitely plans to get her new baby vaccinated, too. She has a simple message for her fellow mothers and other caregivers: “We shouldn’t prevent our children from getting vaccines. Immunization is a preventative method.”

Liberia. Laila Omar Gad, UNICEF Representative to Liberia, speaks at the launch of the polio immunization campaign.
UNICEF Liberia/2021/Hatcher-Moore

Laila Omar Gad, UNICEF Representative to Liberia, spoke recently at the launch of the polio immunization campaign. “We cannot emphasize enough how disruptive 2020 has been on routine services, such as the polio immunization programme,” she said. “This polio outbreak is a very serious situation, because we know how dangerous polio is; just one child affected by polio is a risk to all children.”

Liberia. Volunteers for a polio vaccination campaign talk to parents in Monrovia.
UNICEF Liberia/2021/Hatcher-Moore

Elizabeth Graby (centre) and Kissah Mensah (left) have been volunteering for the polio vaccination campaign, talking to parents in Monrovia and encouraging them to vaccinate their children. “Because of COVID, people are refusing the vaccine,” Kissah says, noting how inaccurate information circulating about the effects of COVID-19 vaccines has led to mistrust about other vaccines. But overall, she remains positive. “I’ve managed to convince [some of] them that the polio vaccine is safe.”

The spread of the circulating vaccine-derived polio virus (cVDPV) in parts of Africa, including in Liberia, has only increased the urgency of getting children vaccinated. The oral polio vaccine is safe and very effective, but if the weakened strain of the poliovirus contained in the vaccine circulates among under-immunized populations for a long time in areas with poor sanitary conditions, children who have not yet been immunized can be left at risk of contracting cVDPV. Liberia has launched a nationwide vaccination campaign, and UNICEF and partners have been working to ensure that families receive accurate information about the polio vaccine to increase confidence, ensure more children can be vaccinated, and ultimately save lives.

UNICEF and its partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, including the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the US  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are supporting Liberia’s Ministry of Health. Read more about UNICEF’s work in the country here.


*This article was updated on 8 July 2021 to ensure accuracy and clarity.