Fighting polio vaccine misinformation
Engaging digital communities to build trust in vaccines and eradicate polio
Since 1988, the number of children affected by polio has reduced by 99 per cent. While the end of polio is within reach, immunization efforts can easily be derailed by the rapid spread of vaccine misinformation, putting vulnerable children at risk.
Take for example Pakistan, one of just two countries where polio remains endemic, where fake videos of children falling sick after receiving polio vaccination spread like wildfire on social media a few years ago. The misinformation caused mass panic and derailed long-fought efforts to immunize millions of children across the country.
While it is near impossible to eliminate misinformation after it has spread, national health systems can actively monitor for and address misinformation as it arises. This is where the Digital Community Engagement (DCE) initiative is proving effective. Based on the Vaccine Misinformation Management Guide, the DCE was launched as a first-of-its kind misinformation management model in 2021 by UNICEF and The Public Good Projects.
The DCE is made up of a central hub that tracks polio misinformation online, develops accurate messaging, and supports digital volunteers and UNICEF country offices in responding. The hub is driven by a global team of experts spread across public health, social behaviour change, online social listening, advertising, content design and influencer marketing.
The polio ‘listening post’
“Social listening is like a disease surveillance system, but instead of the virus, we track and analyze polio misinformation. Using cutting-edge digital media and tools we collect and analyze publicly available data on polio and vaccines across social media, digital media, broadcast news and print media platforms,” says Adnan Shahzad, the Digital Communication Manager of the UNICEF Polio Eradication Team.
In 2022, over 5 million pieces of content were analysed from 41 countries in more than 100 languages.
As misinformation is analysed by the hub, it is categorised as low, medium or high risk based on its potential impact to vaccination efforts and how quickly it is spreading. When high-risk misinformation is going viral, the DCE hub jumps into action, sending an alert to UNICEF’s country offices to respond.
Clear and accurate messaging
“What we say must be accurate and easy to understand for everyone,” says Soterine Tsanga, Polio Outbreak Response SBC specialist with UNICEF, who is also involved in the roll out of DCE to countries. “When there’s a polio outbreak, our goal is to respond swiftly to reach children with vaccination and stop further spread of the virus. We cannot afford to have our own messaging causing confusion among mothers and fathers,” she adds.
Backed by scientific evidence and facts, messages on polio are carefully prepared at the DCE hub in English, French, Urdu and Pashto. The team organizes content into a bank for quick retrieval based on reoccurring themes, such as vaccine effectiveness, safety and side effects.
Digital volunteers quash rumours
A big part of UNICEF’s social behaviour change work for polio eradication involves engaging local community mobilisers from villages and towns who continuously listen to concerns about vaccines, clarify doubts and encourage parents and caregivers to vaccinate their children. “DCE is the online version of this approach aimed at engaging online communities to quash false information about polio vaccines quickly before it becomes viral,” says Sheeba Afghani, the Chief of Social Behaviour Change with the UNICEF Polio Eradication Programme.
The DCE hub recruits digital volunteers through an interactive online platform called uInfluence to promote accurate polio and vaccine information. Digital volunteers or ‘uInfluencers’ are everyday social media users, many of them young people who are already active in online communities.
“I grew up seeing many people suffering from polio and other diseases. We struggled to find solutions for the problems in our community. I wanted to help by being a source of accurate information about polio.”
Liam is one of 75,000 digital volunteers working with uInfluence. They repurpose content shared by uInfluence on Facebook and Instagram, dispel vaccine and polio misinformation, and increase engagement on social posts. In 2022, content posted through uInfluence channels and amplified by digital volunteers reached 74 million people.
Local outreach and digital engagement
Digital Community Engagement enables countries to bridge the gap between their on-the-groundwork and digital communities, while fostering trust in childhood immunization.
Pakistan’s polio eradication programme has managed several misinformation crises. In October 2022, a Facebook post falsely claimed that a child had died after receiving the polio vaccine. The polio social media team responded quickly with accurate information delivered by the involved doctor in a video message. The team also alerted Meta and the Pakistan Telecom Authority, triggering an independent investigation and an article discrediting the misinformation.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where polio outbreaks have paralysed over 700 children in the past three years, UNICEF’s local team is tapping into its network of young fact checkers and U-Reporters to tackle misinformation using tools from the DCE. During a polio vaccination campaign in July 2023, U-Reporters spoke with mothers and fathers about polio vaccines in markets, churches and mosques while the fact checkers tracked and responded to fake news and rumours related to polio vaccines.
In Afghanistan, religious leaders are building trust in polio vaccines through their sermons in schools and mosques. In Kandahar, where vaccine refusal is a major challenge, an Islamic radio programme helps assuage fears and misinformation. The country is also planning to establish a misinformation management taskforce to help in the fight against polio vaccine misinformation.
Several other UNICEF country offices have taken similar approaches, drawing from DCE tools to support their local community outreach, and expanding on the work in exciting new ways. Following the DCE model, Yemen is now developing similar resources on measles and oral cholera vaccines.
More opportunities ahead
While there has been tremendous progress in getting the social listening and misinformation alert systems up and running, there is always more to do. DCE is now focused on strengthening local misinformation response teams while continuing to engage online communities through digital volunteers.
For Gulzar Ahmed Khan, a 28-year-old polio social mobilizer in Pakistan, tracking and addressing polio misinformation is more important than ever.
“Where I work, people have poor understanding of health matters, especially around vaccines. They fear vaccines, they fear us, the polio workers. I explain to them: I’m here for you, for the health and safety of your children. I’m here despite the intense heat and the biting cold. When you refuse to vaccinate, it is the children who will suffer the most," says Khan.
My only motivation is that children and families are spared the suffering of polio.