UNICEF comes up with Mobile App to counter vaccine misinformation

TANZANIA: WHILE Tanzania has high coverage in routine immunisations, it still faces some challenges to address some of the emerging misinformation on the vaccines.

Technology is spreading fast in all aspects of Tanzanian lives enabling innovative ways to solve problems in people’s lives.

As is always the case; technology can be good or bad it depends on its use. The emergence of social media and citizen journalism has come with challenges in terms of spreading false news when it comes to the efficacy and effectiveness of vaccines.

For instance in the Tanzanian context if one is to misinform the public over a certain vaccine causing loss of libido for men or infertility for women it certainly would get the best buy in as sad as it may be.

When it comes to this challenge, more often than not, the problem is always with both the elite as well as ordinary and humble citizens in rural areas with no exception.

On the other hand, vaccination is one of the most significant medical interventions as it has helped to keep millions of people safe from the most deadly diseases to mankind.

The vice has been so effective that some of the diseases that were once feared are no longer or easy to manage. In recent years however, the world has seen more emerging diseases, a situation that makes immunisation even more crucial than ever.

In Tanzania, like elsewhere, vaccines remain to be one of the most cost-effective and lasting health investments, playing a vital role in reducing child mortality among others. It is based on the various challenges noted that UNICEF has come up with a ground-breaking effort to counter vaccine misinformation, with a free, evidence based game, ‘Cranky Uncle Vaccine’, now available as a mobile app in Tanzania.

According to UNICEF, the move is meant to vaccinate community members against misinformation. In case you are wondering over how Tanzanians can get the message, well you need not to worry as the game is available in multiple languages such as French, Kinyarwanda and Swahili.

To ensure equitable access and to narrow the digital divide, the game is also being optimised for lowbandwidth devices (not only as a smartphone application). Apart from the WhatsApp chatbot and a voice-based platform, the game can be accessed on the Internet of Good Things [IoGT] and as an offline print version.

Created by developers at GoodBeast, the game equips players with the skills to identify misinformation while building their knowledge of vaccine safety, efficacy, and importance along the way.

Awet Araya, Social and Behaviour Change Manager for UNICEF in Tanzania, says in a world overflowing with misinformation, the true vaccine is knowledge; and the tools to discern it are more crucial now than ever before.

According to the official, ‘Cranky Uncle Vaccine’ was developed as a collaborative effort by UNICEF, in partnership with the Sabin Vaccine Institute; Irimi, a public health behavioural design company; and the Senior Research Fellow Dr. John Cook of the Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change at the University of Melbourne.

Dr Cook developed the original ‘Cranky Uncle’ game using cartoons, humour and critical thinking to expose the misleading techniques of science denial to build public resilience against misinformation. ‘Cranky Uncle Vaccine’ centres around a character called ‘Cranky Uncle’ (an archetypal science-denying individual) who insists he knows better than the world’s scientists, and a health worker who shares factual information on the safety, efficacy, and importance of vaccines.

Throughout the game players are mentored by the Cranky Uncle character, who teaches them different misinformation techniques (‘tricks’) that he uses to mislead people about vaccines. The idea of a vaccine version of the game was conceived early in the pandemic by Dr Angus Thomson, Senior Social Scientist at Irimi, and Cook when writing UNICEF’s Vaccine Misinformation Management Field Guide.

UNICEF and Sabin joined the collaboration to develop the game and assisted with tailoring, developing, and testing the game’s resonance and relevance to local culture and traditions.

Regional, multilingual versions of the game were co-designed in East and West Africa and South Asia, later evolving into country specific adaptations for Tanzania.

“Games and humour are perfect allies for tackling vaccine misinformation,” says Cook adding that they are interactive, engaging, and can be scaled up to reach enough people to make a difference in building resilience against misinformation.”

According to Dr. Kate Hopkins, Director of Research in Sabin’s Vaccine Acceptance and Demand Initiative; the game is evidence-based, starting with the literature review conducted which identified and classified the top 10 fallacies used globally to push vaccine misinformation.

She says the team worked with end users–young people, community health workers and parents/caregivers–to discuss and localise the script and characters to their context and ensure the final content is culturally relevant. A pre- and post-game play survey was administered as part of the pilot studies.

UNICEF’s Surani Abeyesekera who specialises in Social, and Behaviour Change with the Immunisation Section in New York, HQ says the programme is about taking the initiative and getting out ahead of this challenge, rather than always being on the back foot.

“ We want to vaccinate people against vaccine misinformation,” he says, adding that results have shown that ‘Cranky Uncle Vaccine’ is effective in helping users discern vaccine-related misinformation from vaccination facts.

A global dashboard, engineered by GoodBeast (who also developed the mobile app) and supported by UNICEF, tracks data analytics,” says Abeyesekera According to the press release released in Tanzania by UNICEF recently, ‘Cranky Uncle Vaccine’ which also rolled out in Ghana, is being tested in other countries including Rwanda and Pakistan for roll out this year and will be scaled programmatically, embedded in the ongoing immunisation activities of local UNICEF offices, Ministries of Health, and communitybased organisations.

To make this more effective, UNICEF intends to use community radios under the umbrella of the Network of Community Media in Tanzania (TADIO) to ensure the message reaches as many people in hard to reach areas as possible.

The move will be helpful not only to curb the misinformation against vaccines but will also help to compliment the government’s efforts to vaccinate children under five as well as implement other vaccinations such as the Covid Jab. As it has always been said, good health is a means to further economic development. Tanzania like any other country needs its people to be healthy to achieve that.

• Rose Ngunangwa Mwalongo is a journalist, events manager, media consultant, rapporteur, moderator as well as an Events Coordinator and can be reachable via: sangunangwa@gmail.com +255-715-286-671

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