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The COVID-19 vaccine roll-out: Why it will only work with a people-centred approach

22nd January 2021

The road to vaccination was a challenge for the science community; subsequently, the management of the procurement and distribution of the vaccine became a test for the supply chain industry. Now, countries must rise to the social challenges of the roll-out of the vaccines. To do so, they must tackle the difficulties of achieving widespread acceptance for vaccination in order to meet high enough vaccination levels that are required to end the pandemic.

Even though vaccine campaigns have started in many countries, it is evident that people across the globe remain sceptical and mistrusting, and that there is still misinformation to counter. Education and outreach will remain a key aspect of this worldwide vaccination effort. Official publicity and advocacy campaigns, media coverage and community engagement all require significant amounts of time put in by those leading on this effort.

From our involvement in programmes such as the Health Pooled Fund in South Sudan, we have seen first-hand the value of integrating education outreach into campaign planning: For the last nine years, Crown Agents has been managing the Fund, which provides essential drugs and medical services to the country. To achieve this, we work with 23 locally embedded partners and the Government of South Sudan, with funding from the FCDO, USAID, the EU, Canada and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

With the region’s long history of using traditional healers and spiritual medicine, it has been important for our health teams to help build trust in modern medicine and encourage the use of health services.

Our network of over 1,150 Boma health workers (BHWs), for example, has worked with communities  and local leaders to develop education materials that address perceived and actual barriers preventing women from safely giving birth at health facilities. We have developed bespoke messaging on the importance of antenatal care visits, how to spot pregnancy danger signs and information on health centre referral pathways. This is to reduce the risk of women dying when giving birth at home. Media tools, such as posters and jingles are also being used for educational purposes, as well as radio skits which are being broadcast to the wider population in partnership with BBC Media Action.

Based on our experience and the recommendations put forward by the Working Group on Readying Populations for COVID-19 Vaccines in its report The Public’s Role in COVID-19 Vaccination: Planning Recommendations Informed by Design Thinking and the Social, Behavioural, and Communication Sciences’, published by the The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in June last year, we believe the following five points should be key considerations to advance the acceptance of the Covid-19 vaccine by communities across the globe:

  1. In many cases, we do not yet have enough data to assess what communities across the globe feel, believe and fear in relation to the COVID-19 vaccine. To end the pandemic globally, we need to put people at the centre of vaccination campaigns by ensuring research goes into the social, behavioural, and communication barriers preventing communities from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
  2. We must partner with grassroots-level organisations, practitioners, and other local stakeholders who can provide a localised understanding of vaccine access and the issues their communities face. The same group of stakeholders should also serve as trusted vaccine champions. Getting politicians, businesses, health providers and advocates all on board to co-create solutions to educate and inform the public will also be key to build local ownership and trust within communities.
  3. Education communication techniques must be used to inform communities across the globe about the benefits, risks, and supply of the vaccine as well as the risks of not taking it. Scientific facts do not always motivate people to act. Therefore, messaging needs to be meaningful, relevant, and emotionally accessible, ensuring that any misinformation is treated as such or so minor in volume that it is not taken note of.
  4. There will be insufficient quantities of the vaccine to give to everyone initially and the public will need to trust authorities to decide who gets it first. The vaccine allocation and targeting strategy should therefore be made transparent throughout all communications in order to boost public confidence that allocation decision making is fair.
  5. Governments and local health authorities should work together to develop clear communication strategies for describing where vaccines are available and who should be seeking them. By making vaccination available in safe, familiar, and convenient environments, people will feel more confident receiving it. This will sometimes mean that public health authorities will need to travel to communities to provide vaccinations, particularly to those that are vulnerable.

We understand that deploying a vaccine campaign is a complex undertaking, involving a variety of logistical and social challenges. Our ability to make a difference goes beyond delivering ‘best practice’ technical solutions and takes into account the importance of navigating the local political and social environment as well as creating lasting behavioural change. By activating our global and local networks and deploying our long-standing expertise to deliver locally owned solutions, we can help deploy a successful vaccine campaign. To find out more, click on the image below.

This opinion piece is part of a series of blogs focussing on Crown Agents Holistic Vaccine Offering.