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India is set to begin vaccinations after the regulator last week okayed two vaccines for restricted emergency use. AP
India is set to begin vaccinations after the regulator last week okayed two vaccines for restricted emergency use. AP

Govt prepares to curb fake news on vaccines

  • The govt’s strategy is to disseminate timely, accurate and transparent details to check fears about the vaccine

The Union health ministry has reached out to Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram and YouTube to prevent misinformation and increase acceptance of covid-19 vaccines, a ministry official said. The government will also engage celebrities from entertainment, sports and politics to build trust in the vaccination exercise.

India is set to begin covid-19 vaccinations after the subject expert committee of the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) last week granted permission for restricted emergency use of Serum Institute of India’s vaccine Covishield and Bharat Biotech International Ltd’s Covaxin.

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The health ministry’s communication strategy released last week aims to disseminate timely, accurate and transparent information to check fears about the vaccine, ensure its acceptance and encourage uptake.

The strategy will also serve to guide national, state and district-level communication activities so that the information reaches everyone. Since online platforms are often one of the major sources of misinformation, the government decided to loop in these platforms.

“As part of the communication strategy for rolling out of covid-19 vaccines, we reached out to the majority of the social platforms for helping us in disseminating the right information and stop any misinformation surrounding the covid-19 vaccines. The Union health ministry is already on these platforms," the official cited above said on condition of anonymity.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has already warned countries that a deluge of misinformation could impact vaccination efforts.

After the recent approval of covid-19 vaccines, Facebook updated its ad policy on vaccines.

The company will now allow ads that highlight the ability of a covid-19 vaccine to prevent someone from contracting the virus, as well as advertisements promoting ways to safely access a covid-19 vaccine.

“We’re committed to limiting the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus and are connecting people with reliable information about covid-19. We don’t want vaccine misinformation on Facebook and are working hard to reduce its spread on the platform," a Facebook spokesperson said.

MyGov, the Indian government’s principal citizen engagement platform, has two dedicated Telegram channels—MyGov Corona Newsdesk (https://t.me/MyGovCoronaNewsdesk) and MyGov Hindi Newsdesk (https://t.me/MyGovHindi)—sharing official information.

Other countries, too, have been using Telegram to send news updates, warnings and tips on the coronavirus pandemic.

“To rapidly counter vaccine misinformation and build demand for vaccination, the key components that can be useful to contain the negative effects of misinformation and remorse in the context of vaccine are social listening, tracking rumours and misinformation at the field level; and developing a library of factual information," said Dr Naveen Thacker, executive director, International Paediatric Association, and a former civil society organization representative to the Gavi board, the Vaccine Alliance.

“Where possible, consult with experts who can help determine whether the information is correct; developing a standard operating procedure—to verify and assess the impact of misinformation on public trust; regularly disseminate vaccine-pro content through various channels," he said, recommending that the government should amplify trusted online voices such as UNICEF, or the United Nations Children’s Fund, WHO and public health agencies.

“Engaging with and sensitizing media persons and broadcasters at national and sub-national levels prior to the rollout of vaccination, and transparency in risk communication is the need of the hour," said Thacker.

The strategy document said that digital media platforms, especially social media channels, can reach and engage large audiences quickly, adding that the results are in real-time and the channels are cost-effective.

To maximize the reach of covid-19 communications and ensure visibility and amplification, consistent, simple, precise messaging with consistent branding will be disseminated through the use of multiple social media channels, including WhatsApp.

Ensuring content is branded officially can help build trust among many audiences.

A social media plan will be developed to include content and marketing through official channels and to ensure engagement with key influencers through their channels, the government’s communication strategy document stated.

Nandita Mathur contributed to this story.

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