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UNICEF's Guide to Fighting Misinformation About Vaccines

January 18, 2021

As countries prepare for the largest immunization campaign in history — vaccinating against COVID-19 — UNICEF releases a how-to manual for dispelling myths and rumors that could impede efforts.

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Vaccinating the world against COVID-19 will be a herculean task — the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history. And UNICEF is playing a major role, working with manufacturers and partners to support the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccine doses this year to 92 low- and middle-income countries on behalf of the global COVAX Facility.

UNICEF is also helping countries prepare their health systems for mass coronavirus vaccination campaigns — which includes helping to dispel the myths and misinformation about vaccines that might impede them. 

In the lead-up to mass COVID-19 vaccinations, a field guide to help governments manage misinformation and drive demand 

Introducing the Vaccines Misinformation Management Guide: a free, downloadable resource commissioned by UNICEF and produced in partnership with First Draft, Yale Institute for Global Health and The Public Good Projects (PGP)

Information posted outside Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya Hospital in preparation for a COVID-19 vaccination drive in New Delhi, India. © UNICEF/UN0400295/Reddy

The guide is designed to help governments and organizations manage the global infodemic through the development of strategic and well-coordinated national action plans that effectively drive demand for, and acceptance of, vaccines. It recognizes that misinformation has fueled a parallel epidemic of mistrust in vaccines and vaccine hesitancy — contributing to declines in vaccination rates, and causing a global resurgence of vaccine-preventable disease — and offers a phased strategy for reversing that trend in advance of COVID-19 vaccine deployment.

Myths and rumors have fueled a parallel epidemic of mistrust of vaccines 

The guide is informed by UNICEF's deep understanding of how to detect and counter the spread of misinformation, an area of expertise within communication for development (C4D), a core implementation strategy that cuts across all UNICEF programming. C4D approaches are often a blend of advocacy, behavior and social change strategies and social mobilization, which includes enlisting support of local leaders in communications campaigns and outreach efforts. 

A UNICEF-supported social mobilizer on the job in Yambo, South Sudan, promoting behaviors and practices that are critical for the prevention of COVID-19. Getting the right information out about coronavirus vaccines — and countering misinformation — is crucial to the success of global immunization efforts. © UNICEF/UNI315572/Ongoro

The guide includes instructions on how to assemble local teams that can detect misinformation and where it's coming from, and quickly and nimbly respond to ensure that fact trumps fallacy. A number of tools and tactics are described — for 'social listening,' for quashing vaccine myths and rumors before they can take root, for crafting inoculating messages and so forth.

There are case studies too. The 2016 dengue vaccine controversy in the Philippines, for example, is highlighted as a "stark reminder of how quickly anti-vaccine ideas can take hold, particularly in the absence of clear and consistent messaging from medical and political leaders."

The socio-psychological determinants of vaccine decision-making, from UNICEF's Vaccine Misinformation Management Guide. "Digital communication shapes vaccine demand," the manual notes. "Modern, resilient health systems need infrastructure and tools to listen to, understand, and engage with their communities." © UNICEF 2020

Another case study examines how in Pakistan, a series of fake videos caused a public panic that resulted in 2 million children missing out on their polio vaccinations. "By improving their capacity to identify and address rumors, authorities can seek to slow or stop the spread of disinformation before it derails immunization efforts," the guide points out.

In a related webinar, hosted by UNICEF and the Sabine Vaccine Institute (and available on YouTube), representatives from the UNICEF Pakistan Country Office discuss how they have used social and behavioral data around COVID-19 to inform their communications approach around immunization.

UNICEF's Vaccine Misinformation Management Field Guide offers a comprehensive strategy in four phases — prepare, listen, understand and engage — to foster coronavirus vaccine acceptance and uptake in the lead-up to the largest vaccine procurement and supply operation in history. © UNICEF 2020 

"Globally, vaccines and vaccination have long attracted skepticism and generated conspiracy theories, and continue to do so more rapidly in the new information age of digital communication and social media," moderator Lucy Kiarie, an immunization advocate based in Kenya, said during her opening remarks. "The consequence of misinformation is real — and poses a serious threat to public health."

The field guide, like the webinar, seeks to expand global understanding of the impact of vaccine myths and misinformation on vaccine acceptance and hesitancy, and to better equip immunization professionals to manage that impact. Solutions will vary depending on the context, social norms, cultural attitudes and other variables.

A visual framework for deciding when to engage in order to debunk a specific myth or rumor around vaccinations — a process explained in depth in the Vaccine Misinformation Management Guide. © UNICEF 2020

Learn more about UNICEF's role in COVAX, the vaccines arm of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator global partnership.

Support UNICEF's global efforts to equitably distribute COVID-19 vaccines to low- and lower-middle-income countries. Your contribution can make a difference. 

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Top photo: A vaccinator administers a COVID-19 vaccine to a fellow health worker at Lok Nayak Hospital in New Delhi, India. © UNICEF/UN0400302/Reddy