Note to readers: EL PAÍS offers openly all the content of the Future Planet section for its daily and global contribution to the 2030 Agenda. If you want to support our journalism, subscribe here.
Science has been able to take decades, even centuries, to find the vaccine to eradicate or alleviate the effects of a disease, but the hoaxes that are generated around immunization have ended, in a very short time, with the advances of the scientific work of many years. It happened with polio in Pakistan, one of the countries where, along with Afghanistan, this disease is still endemic.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) had managed to vaccinate more than 37 million children throughout the region, approaching its goal of vaccinating 39 million children under five years of age. However, the project stalled in 2019. Several videos, which ended up going viral, in which a group of children was claimed to have fallen ill after the administration of the dose against polio ruined the good results: fear gripped thousands of parents, who took their immunized children to the hospital without them suffering symptoms; many others refused to vaccinate them and even local mosques warned through their loudspeakers of the danger of doing so. Since then, more than two million children have not been vaccinated and 144 cases were reported that same year, compared with 12 that had been registered in 2018.
This uncertainty that Pakistan experienced in 2019 is similar to that which occurs at the present time, with all the mistrust that has been generated around vaccines against covid-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) already warned in 2020 of the outbreak of disinformation that occurred in parallel to the pandemic, which it baptized as infodemic, an epidemic as dangerous as the health one. So to combat vaccination mistrust around the world, but especially in developing countries, UNICEF, The Public Good Projects and the Yale University Institute for Global Health have teamed up to create the Observatory for Vaccination Demand (Vaccination Demand Observatory in English), a new initiative created to inoculate to society against hoaxes about vaccines.
“In these times of increased anxiety and uncertainty, people have many perfectly reasonable questions and concerns about vaccines. And we can’t address your doubts if we don’t understand them first, ”Angus Thomson, a UNICEF scientist and one of the experts in charge of this project, explains by phone. Since the program started about a year ago, they have developed social listening strategies in 10 West African countries to introduce vaccines against polio and covid-19.
Since the Observatory for Vaccination Demand started, they have developed social listening strategies in 10 West African countries to introduce vaccines against polio and covid-19
“We prioritize the aggregation of both online and analog listening sources, to ensure that the views of people who do not have access to digital information are also taken into account,” adds Thomson, explaining that he has been trained in how manage hoaxes about vaccines to more than 90 members of the UNICEF staff and the different ministries of health in the countries that it is already installed. What’s more, the program has partnered with Facebook in 6 countries: Ukraine, Pakistan, Indonesia, India, Kenya and the Philippines. Together with UNICEF and the different governments, the observatory has created teams to study vaccination campaigns through this social network and their impact, in order to “vaccinate” people against misinformation, Thomson adds.
The difference between this project and previous initiatives is that it revolves around a “manager of the infodemic on the ground”, as Joe Smyser, CEO of The Public Good Projects, explains, rather than an external group taking over. the decisions. This manager coordinates the listening, analysis, and identification and evaluation of rumors, and gaps in information, to provide real-time ideas and practical recommendations to teams that work with communities.
One of the rumors that the observatory team has had to deal with is that Africans were going to be used as guinea pigs to test the effectiveness of vaccines against covid-19, following the controversy after a talk of two experts on a French television. “It is a hoax that arose at the beginning of the pandemic and that has its roots in the colonial legacy that many of the African countries in which we work have, which also causes distrust among the people of the continent in Western medicine,” he explains Thomson.
“Since local communication is key to the success of any vaccination campaign, we focus on creating programs at the local level that are as powerful and sophisticated as any global system. Each country has its own cultural nuances, so the observatory system will create quantitative and qualitative methods adapted to the narrative of each one of them ”, contextualizes Smyser. As a first step, the project published in December 2020 the A practical guide to managing misinformation about vaccines. This report, available in six languages, aims to establish protocols and criteria when managing hoaxes. In short, to help organizations cope with the global infodemic.
Anti-vaccine movements, old acquaintances of science
In 1998, physician Andrew Wakefield presented preliminary research, published in the prestigious scientific journal The Lancet, in which he claimed that 12 children vaccinated against measles had developed autistic behaviors and severe intestinal inflammation. That report, which would later be proven a fraud, would lay the foundations for the mistrust of many and strengthened the denial movement. But anti-vaccines are not a recent phenomenon, according to experts. “We could collect vignettes from 100 years ago in which you can see that it is drawn against the efficacy of vaccines. We have had to deal with disinformation forever, ”says Angus Thomson, from Unicef.
Although it was not born now, the pandemic has increased the number of voices that have risen up against science or who have doubted it, and they have done so through social networks, an indispensable weapon for its rapid dissemination. “The covid-19 has amplified the hoaxes. This unprecedented situation, in which things have been learned on the fly, lends itself to everyone’s opinion. The information that a friend of a friend gives us outweighs what an expert sitting at the WHO tells us. The next thing convinces us more ”, argues Adelaida Sarukhan, doctor in immunology and scientific writer at the Barcelona Institute of Global Health.
In this fight against fake newss, ISGlobal has been participating in a project for just over six months, together with Verify, by which the hoaxes about covid-19 are denied through a Web platform from which affiliated Catholic media drink. “At a time when there are web pages that define themselves as Catholic, that launch the message against vaccines, or even go so far as to say that they are an instrument of the devil, it is important that there is a powerful consortium that is dedicated to denying that type of affirmations using science and trying to reach those same communities ”, explains Pau Rubio, ISGlobal spokesperson. One of the difficulties with verification, Rubio adds, is that it is often very difficult to reach the very communities that have received the disinformation. “It is essential that they are fought because they are more easily impregnated in people’s minds,” explains Sarukhan.
“The fakes news they fill any gap that remains. If there is an information gap, especially those that existed at the beginning of the pandemic, it tends to be filled with them. The best strategy against this is to be proactive, rather than reactive. You do not have to wait for hoaxes to appear before counterattacking them, you have to give truthful information from the beginning, ”argues Sakukhan. For a year now, ISGlobal has also published the most relevant scientific advances every week, to try to address doubts and concerns. “It does not mean that science can already give all the answers, but we should not mind saying that we do not know something when it has not yet been discovered. The essential thing is to give truthful information ”.