Indian government prepares to counter vaccine scepticism

Health workers collect personal data from a man ahead of a Covid-19 vaccine rollout in a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Volunteers at the Youth Online Learning Organisation (Yolo) have been hard at work since April busting misinformation related to the coronavirus pandemic.

For around a fortnight, they have detected a surge in a new kind of misinformation in India - vaccine scepticism.

"There is a bizarre conspiracy theory gaining ground that the vaccine will introduce something in your body that will control you," said Mr Prem Prakash, the co-founder of Sarvahitey, which launched Yolo together with Social Media Matters, another non-government organisation.

"The human brain needs an answer that is comforting. Making up this conspiracy theory allows them to negate the entire existence of Covid-19 and gives them some mental security that nothing is going to happen to them," he added.

Mindful of a potentially growing anti-vaxxers movement in India, the government has initiated work on an awareness campaign to dispel doubts about the vaccine.

In a set of guidelines released last week, the federal government asked states to ensure "factual and timely" information is shared with people to dispel apprehension that may have been "introduced after a short trial raising safety concerns, and fear of adverse events, misconception about vaccine efficacy, rumours and negative narrative in the media / social media space".

There have been small pockets of resistance against vaccinations in pre-pandemic India, motivated by several factors, including a lack of trust in the government, fear of adverse side-effects as well as an entrenched belief in alternative medicinal practices such as naturopathy, which shuns the use of vaccines.

These forces have regained momentum in recent weeks as details of the government's coronavirus vaccination strategy were gradually made public.

While videos questioning the need for a vaccine are being circulated on social media networks, similar events have been held offline.

A press conference was organised on Dec 4 in Mumbai by Awaken India, a collective of citizens who advocate the use of naturopathy against Covid-19 and argue that the country's low death rate from the illness does not justify measures such as mandatory testing and vaccination of the entire population.

"One hundred per cent, I am not going to get vaccinated," said Mr Ambar Koiri, one of the collective's members who works for a robotics firm in Mumbai. He added his family as well as around 200,000 members of Awaken India and their families will not opt for vaccination.

Lack of reliable information on the safety and efficacy of coronavirus vaccines - trials of which have been greatly hastened - has also contributed to this trend of vaccine scepticism, including even among some health workers who told the media they will wait for more details before getting vaccinated.

Results of a survey released this month by LocalCircles, a community-based social media platform, found that 59 per cent of its nearly 9,000 respondents said that they would adopt a similar wait-and-watch approach on coronavirus vaccines. Some even indicated they would wait until 2022 to get vaccinated.

In October, a 40-year-old trial participant was admitted to a Chennai hospital after suffering "a virtual neurological breakdown" 10 days after he was administered a dose of a vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India. The Pune-based firm dismissed the participant's claim that the reactions were a result of the vaccine as "malicious and misconceived" and also threatened to sue him.

Public health activists have, however, criticised the lack of transparency around the handling of this event by authorities, including how it became publicly known more than a month after adverse reactions were first reported and that too only after the volunteer threatened to go to court.

The All India Drug Action Network, in a letter to the government last week, said no public details were available to date regarding the handling of the adverse event, and how it was determined that the incident was not related to the vaccine candidate.

"The long silence from the authorities was perplexing. The vaccine may be good but its approval process has to be fully transparent. This is something that is not happening and that is where suspicion starts," Dr Anant Phadke, one of AIDAN's members told The Straits Times.

"Moreover, if all relevant details of the trial are not made public, if conflict of interests is not known and if pharma companies apply for emergency use authorisation without full data from Phase 3 trials as they have in India - how can this inspire confidence in the concerned pharma companies?"

While still not widespread in India, vaccine scepticism as an "emerging challenge", said Mr Prakash. "If this seed of misinformation gets into minds, it will be very difficult for for the government to vaccinate people. We, therefore, need to nip it in the bud. If we don't control it, it will definitely escalate," he told The Straits Times.

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