By Dr Sambit Dash*
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s announcement of free vaccines for the 18-44 year age range in Odisha, for which the government will spend Rs 2000 crore, was anticipated. About 2 crore people, nearly half the population of the state that fall in this age bracket will be vaccinated for free. While this has cleared the air on bearing the cost of vaccination, come May 1, the daunting task will be to address issues of vaccine hesitancy to ensure that large numbers of people are vaccinated as quickly as possible.
Back to the basics
One of most basic and fundamental tools to address vaccine hesitancy is knowledge and information. The two vaccines that Odisha government has placed an order for, Covishield, accounting for more than 99% of the order and Covaxin, are based on different underlying principles. It would be desirable to explain the complex science in a simple format to lay public. What may seem innocuous like source of adenovirus being used in Covishield coming from chimpanzee poop could create hesitancy and thus it is imperative to communicate how safe, laboratory based processes make vaccines do what they do.
Sadly, science communication has been left wanting in this pandemic, not just in Odisha but across the country. Aspersion on vaccines is still cast, including by well-informed people, regarding the rapid time in which they were developed. This needs addressing by effective science communication both from government as well as science community in the state.
It has now been well established that vaccines work in reducing infections in the best case scenario and most importantly reduce disease severity in case of breakthrough infection (infection after taking the vaccine). The science behind benefits attributed by vaccination has to be conveyed to people in a clear and transparent manner. Reports of breakthrough infections concern people greatly, for it makes them feel vulnerable and questions about benefits of vaccination arise.
Odisha has vaccinated a little over 55 lakhs in the age group of 45 and above. Breakthrough infections, disease severity must be collated in this group and communicated to people, stating the statistics, which will help address hesitancy. Any attempt to hide facts will only lead to greater hesitancy and can derail the process.
“Ethos”, or establishing one’s authority is a very important component of communication and thus information that would enhance vaccine acceptance should come from such quarters. Health minister, medical college deans, prominent practicing doctors, scientists along with actors, social leaders, political leaders across parties should be delivering the message promoting vaccine uptake.
While giving priority to epidemiologists and infectious disease experts, a Dr A K Bisoyi or DrRamakant Panda speaking to the people of Odisha would go a long way in establishing authority.
It is important to address the targeted age group in a stratified manner. The messaging that would work for those less than 25 years of age may not suit the 40 year olds. Government needs to reach out to YouTube, Instagram influencers, media channels, rappers and the likes to send across its message.
Reach out to communities
Going local and at the community level is equally important. In that regard, the wide range of healthcare workers (HCWs) in the shape of ASHA and others, who have been doing a commendable work until now, need to be roped in. They have to be equipped both with traditional channels like posters, new age tools like images, short videos, links, which they can share within the community where they work.
The communities in urban Odisha will require a different set of communication and action. Reaching out to apartments in urban areas, opening vaccination sites 24X7 in major cities with large population, communicating through employers can be a few ways to enhance vaccine acceptance.
Act fast and act safe
As per news reports, a little less than a quarter of healthcare workers at AIIMS Bhubaneswar have not taken the jab. The figures may be a bit higher if all healthcare workers would be taken into account. This goes on to show that vaccine hesitancy, even among the supposedly well-informed, is a fact and also becomes worrying for the effect it has on rest of the public. Any coercion in vaccination, overtly or covertly, should strictly be off the table. It should rather be both discouraged and if found in certain places, action taken against. Vaccination is a complex issue which the Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp focus. With it being the best bet for our way out of this pandemic, reducing hesitancy and increasing acceptance should receive adequate focus.
*The writer is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry, at Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE).
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.