With a vaccination drive to begin from Delhi schools from January 16, the fight against rumours and misinformation has moved to social media, including WhatsApp.
Under a central government initiative short videos featuring actor Amitabh Bachchan and several gifs will be deployed urging parents to vaccinate their wards against measles and rubella (MR).
“These short videos and gifs will be shared on Whatsapp and other social-networking platforms,” said Pradeep Haldar, deputy commissioner, immunisation, ministry of health and family welfare. “When it comes to misinformation being spread on Twitter and Facebook, we can identify the rumour-mongers and ask platforms to take down such messages. But it is extremely difficult to do so on Whatsapp. Some action against culprits in Tamil Nadu and Jammu and Kashmir, but we will focus on spreading awareness.”
Although misinformation and rumours against vaccination were largely considered to be a rural problem, the new media has allowed it to spread to urban areas as well. The initiative counters claims that MR vaccine causes infertility and death.
“Apart from the traditional resistance, now we also have people from urban literate background asking why the additional dose,” said Haldar. “Under the national immunisation programme there are two doses of vaccine for measles and rubella, and even if 100% people receive both doses there would be 2 or 3% children who can still get it. And, if a high proportion of the population is not vaccinated, the infections would still be in circulation and get transmitted to adults as well, where in rubella it presents as a risk to mother and child.”
The Amitabh Bachchan video links vaccination with cricket. “Vaccinate every child between 9 months and 15 years for measles and rubella. This is available for free at schools and health centres. When the children are healthy, only then will they be able to play (cricket),” said Bachchan. He urges parents, teachers, asha workers and doctors to become coaches to inform everyone about the vaccine.
The gifs say things like “There is no link between MR vaccination and infertility.” Another one states, “One Syringe, One Child. The syringes and needles under the campaign come in a sterile packing and are auto-disabled, which cannot be reused.”
In Delhi, more than 55.5 lakh children will be vaccinated within the next two months. The measles-rubella campaign, which started in India in February 2017, has already covered 22 crore children in 30 states, according to the health ministry officials.
“The vaccination will be carried out in a phased manner; students from around 5,000 big schools in the city will receive the vaccines between January 16 and February 2, after which there will be a gap because the national pulse polio drive is scheduled. From February 11 for another two weeks all the other schools will be targeted along with an outreach with the health of ASHAs and ANMs. And then, there will be a mop up for another week to vaccinate anyone who has been left out,” said Dr Suresh Seth, state programme officer, immunisation.
Measles is a highly contagious viral disease causes with fever, runny nose, cough, and rashes and complications such as encephalitis (swelling of the brain membrane), which can lead to death. Rubella causes mild fever and rashes but in pregnant women, it can lead to spontaneous abortion and birth defects.
Apart from the messages, the government has also been in touch with religious leaders in the community. “We do this to ensure that the leaders do not make any statements that could jeopardise the vaccination effort. If you remember the polio vaccination, there was a lot of misinformation is certain communities about that too,” said Haldar.
The government will also directly get in touch with parents and children through mascots and famous Radio Jockeys conducting their shows from public places like parks, malls and national monuments as the children are still on winter vacation.