Editorial: Countering vaccine fear

·3 min read

THE focus for public health should be two-pronged: reinforcing the public’s observance of safety protocols to prevent a surge of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) during the holidays and conducting a vaccination program to inform, educate and involve citizens in what may be the most crucial health advocacy of our time.

An information, education and communication (IEC) link underlies the successes and failures encountered by communities and governments in containing and even eliminating the pandemic. Topping the Covid Resilience Ranking of Bloomberg as of Nov. 23, New Zealand relied on border control, testing, contact tracing and centralized quarantine strategy to recreate a “world without Covid.”

Joining New Zealand are Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Finland, Norway, Australia, China, Denmark and Vietnam. Eight of the countries in the Top 10 of the Covid Resilience Ranking are democracies, underscores Bloomberg.

“Success in containing Covid-19 with the least disruption appears to rely less on being able to order people into submission, but on governments engendering a high degree of trust and societal compliance,” Bloomberg posted on Nov. 20.

To synchronize communities with governments meant relying less on lockdowns and more on communication “from the start,” notes the media company. New Zealand’s communication strategy used a “four-level alert system” that informed citizens how the government would respond and why it chose these actions to handle the different stages of the outbreak.

Japan, Korea and Sweden also demonstrate the success of clear and early health communication to create in citizens “faith in the authorities and their guidance”.

“High levels of social trust and compliance” account for Japanese citizens’ pro-active and proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and observance of health protocols.

The importance of communication for the creation of social trust between citizens and authorities should not be buried under other concerns as the Philippines approaches the stage of vaccination.

The Philippines recently mandated the use of face shields to reinforce the wearing of face masks and observance of physical distancing in public places. However, recently taken images document many violations in the proper wearing of PPE and the following of physical distancing in shopping malls and dawn masses.

Challenges in drawing public engagement for these pandemic measures are red flags for the government and other stakeholders to plan how to surmount greater hurdles to draw community participation for vaccination.

Misconceptions and biases against vaccines are deeply ingrained and highly resistant to IEC campaigns. For instance, many citizens retain vaccine distrust due to the Dengvaxia issue of 2017, when claims disseminated through the media attributed the deaths of about 600 persons, mostly children, to the school-based vaccination program.

The Dengvaxia controversy resulted in low immunization rates and a measles outbreak in 2019. The stigma against vaccines was fanned by a flare-up of conspiracy theories and speculations spread on social media that the Covid-19 vaccines have life-threatening effects.

Thus, the Covid-19 Vaccination Program (CVP) Ordinance proposed by Cebu City Councilor Alvin Dizon is essential for involving communities, medical frontliners, public health specialists and other stakeholders to create social trust for and compliance with the CVP.

As Jerra Mae J. Librea reported in SunStar Cebu on Dec. 17, the Cebu City Government plans to purchase Covid-19 vaccines worth P500 million. Public health education entails a social preparation stage to involve citizens and other stakeholders in airing and clarifying concerns about the vaccine, particularly regarding safety, necessity, and access.

For communities aspiring to create a brave, renewed world without Covid-19, stakeholders must focus on public health communication: key to unlocking vaccine fear.