From Vaccine Hesitancy to Confidence

Building trust and confidence in COVID-19 vaccines in remote migrant communities

Mark Sirapob Ruckthongsuk
Children attended a COVID-19 information session at Chedi Koh.
UNICEF Thailand/2022/Bundit Chotsuwan
04 July 2022

Vaccines have saved millions of lives since the first vaccine was administered 200 years ago. But many people still hesitate over perceived risks – especially with the rise of misinformation on social media. Despite the efforts of the provincial health office and district health offices in Tak Province in promoting and providing access to COVID-19 vaccines in remote communities, few people had been showing up for their appointment. 

Jo Tho, a migrant leader in a village called ‘kilometre 44’ by locals in the district of Propha, explained that there was a vaccination programme at the health centre not far from our village, but only 1-2 people went. “People in the village were afraid of the side effects of the vaccines. They saw it with their own eyes on social media, a patient that had just received the vaccine collapsed in a viral video.”

Jo Tho, a migrant leader in a village.
UNICEF Thailand/2022/Bundit Chotsuwan
Jo Tho, a migrant leader in a village

The COVID-19 vaccination rate in Tak is one of the lowest rates in the country, posing health risks not only for the local population but also for documented and undocumented migrants from neighbouring Myanmar, which borders the province. 

To curb the risks, UNICEF has partnered with the Shoklo Malaria Research Unit (SMRU) to inform migrant families living in remote communities in the province about the benefits as well as the potential side effects of vaccines. 

“Vaccines are one of the most important tools that we have to protect the most vulnerable members of society from COVID-19,” said Napat Phisanbut, Social and Behaviour Change Officer at UNICEF Thailand. “But vaccine-related misinformation can spread fast and increase vaccine hesitancy. It is crucial that we provide people with the correct information and built trust to ensure that the most vulnerable can access lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines.” 

“A large part of the migrant population faces barriers in accessing health services and information,” noted Payong Phuthong , who is deputy village chief in Chedi Koh and assisted in identifying and reaching vulnerable migrant communities. To bridge this gap in public health, UNICEF supported SMRU to conduct information sessions in the Karen and Burmese languages based on the needs of each community.

An SMRU officer is conducting an outreach activity at Chedi Koh.
UNICEF Thailand/2022/Bundit Chotsuwan
An SMRU officer is conducting an outreach activity at Chedi Koh to promote healthy hygiene practices to prevent COVID-19 and boost vaccine literacy.

Vaccine outreach activities not only help build confidence but play an important role in controlling outbreaks of diseases, especially in remote communities. Kanjana Winyurat, Community and Public Engagement Coordinator at SMRU, added that "health officials may not visit remote communities like Tam Po Doh very often, as it is far and difficult to travel. Outreach helps provide accurate information to communities and build trust in COVID-19 vaccines, as a large part of the migrant population usually receive information through social media and word of mouth, often discouraging them from getting vaccinated.” 

Before each session, local health authorities and village leaders met with their community to listen to their concerns about vaccines, assess the vaccine uptake, in order to tailor the content for each session accordingly. This way, UNICEF and SMRU ensured that these sessions were truly helpful and engaging to migrant communities, ultimately boosting confidence in vaccines. Additionally, SMRU helped coordinate with health authorities to ensure that these communities can then access vaccines. 

Children who lived in Chedi Koh attended the activity.
UNICEF Thailand/2022/Bundit Chotsuwan
Children who lived in Chedi Koh attended the activity.

During a session recently held in Chedi Koh Village, SMRU staff, along with migrant health and village health volunteers, set up an activity area by hanging COVID-19 prevention banners and invited villagers to participate in the activity. The staff opened the session by asking around 30-40 participants about COVID-19, to later explain how the virus can be transmitted through objects, contaminated surfaces or close contact with infected people through secretions from the mouth and nose.  

The session later focused on COVID-19 vaccines, explaining how vaccines work to prevent severe illness from the virus and their role in broader prevention measures and ending the pandemic by using visual materials such as illustrations. Vaccine safety, clinical trial, and possible side effects, which were a great concern for many villagers, were also discussed . The staff also explained that mild and moderate side effects are common, as with any vaccine. In each session, facilitators moderated the discussion with audiences of all ages to share their thoughts on what they had learned and answered any questions they had. 

Payong Phuthong, who is deputy village chief in Chedi Koh along with village health volunteers.
UNICEF Thailand/2022/Bundit Chotsuwan
Payong Phuthong (in the middle) , who is deputy village chief in Chedi Koh along with village health volunteers.

“Before, we didn't have any information about vaccines,” said Phyu San, a migrant health volunteer at ‘kilometre 35’ village in Pobpra district after the session. “Word of mouth in the village was that if you get vaccinated, you will get very sick and have serious side effects. People were very scared, because we did not know what was in the vaccine. After receiving the information from SMRU on how to prevent COVID-19 and on vaccines, people feel more confident and are willing to get vaccinated to protect their community.” 

Jo Tho from ‘kilometre 44’ village added, “At the information session delivered by SMRU, our vaccine concerns were answered. Many people went to get vaccinated. At this moment, more than 90 percent of the people in the village are vaccinated." 

Yod Thong, a villager from Tam Po Doh who recently attended an information session, said, “Our village is far away from big cities, so there was no organization that had come to give us information on vaccines. Most of the information I learned was from Facebook. Now, I feel more confident.” 

Yodthong and his family.
UNICEF Thailand/2022/Bundit Chotsuwan
Yodthong and his family

With the support of UNICEF, SMRU reached 12,000 children and families in remote communities in Tak by engaging with them to address questions and misinformation or misunderstandings related to COVID-19 risks and the vaccine. This year, SMRU plans to reach 20,000 vulnerable children and families in Tak with vital life-saving information. 


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