EPI: 50 years on

Published April 25, 2024
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THIS year, World Immunisation Week (April 24-30) celebrates 50 years of the Ex­­panded Programme on Immunisation (EPI), recognising collective efforts to improve countless lives by protecting them from vaccine-preventable diseases. Indeed, the world has come a long way from the time when the death of a child seemed inevitable. But we have not reached the finish line yet. More work needs to be done to protect every child from disease and disability.

In Pakistan, one effective solution could be the use of digital media through popular platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, X and TikTok. They were used by Pakistan’s polio eradication programme in October 2022 for effectively countering misinformation following a false Facebook post that a child had died after receiving the polio vaccine. The polio social media team responded quickly with a video message from the doctor who had examined the child, stating the actual cause of death.

In a vivacious environment, over 36 youngsters, mostly girls, were glued to their phones laughing, chatting and recording. Each boasted an engaged social media following and had been invited to a first of its kind in-person meet-up to volunteer their services to fight vaccine-related misinformation online. The youngsters agreed to amplify awareness through their digital spheres and pledged to turn their social media prowess into a force for good.

The aim of the exercise, held in Lahore last month, is to use these digital volunteers or online influencers to spread awareness and garner public support for vaccines. Spearheaded by Unicef, it is a global network of volunteer social media micro-influencers who support children’s health in their communities. More than a network, the vision is about ‘influence’ becoming an online civil society youth movement for the protection of children against vaccine-preventable diseases.

Online influencers have a vital role in the eradication of disease.

The EPI’s 50th anniversary presents us with an opportunity to celebrate the achievement as the world stands at the threshold of eradicating a human pathogen globally. However, while the number of children affected by polio since 1988 has now been reduced by 99 per cent in Pakistan, the latter is still one of the two countries where polio is endemic.

In this culturally and geographically diverse country, the challenges faced by immunisation programmes are complex and fragmented. While the end of polio is within reach, immunisation efforts can easily be derailed by the rapid spread of vaccine misinformation, putting children at risk. Vaccine authorities have pointed out that “Ensuring sustainable demand for immunisation is only possible when caregivers and communities trust the safety and efficacy of vaccines, as well as the quality and reliability of immunisation services. They also need to have the necessary information, access and motivation to complete the recommended immunisation schedule on time”.

Social listening, as the Unicef Digital Communication head puts it, “is like a disease surveillance system, but instead of the virus, we track and analyse misinformation”.

A community of 77,000-plus members in over 200 countries, digital influencers are leading the charge in using social media to advocate for better health. The mission: to eradicate polio, ensure broader childhood vaccination, and empower communities with truth and knowledge.

In 2022, over five million online social listening results were analysed from 41 countries in more than 100 languages. The most common misinformation posts claimed that vaccines were unsafe and could cause other diseases. There were also misinformed comments about how vaccines were being used by rich countries or individuals to control the world and depopulate certain continents.

Quashing false in­­formation before it becomes viral and tracking and addr­e­ssing polio misinformation is important. As the network grows, each member is key to making health misinformation a thing of the past. The aim is to ensure that parents, caregivers and communities value immunisation; trust the safety and efficacy of vaccines; have confidence in the quality and reliability of the services and authorities providing them; and possess the necessary information, capacity and motivation to seek out immunisation and complete the schedule on time.

Today, as the world scales up efforts to improve routine vaccine coverage, no one must be left behind. There is a very fine line between lack of information and vaccine hesitancy.

In conclusion, leveraging the influence of young creators presents a promising opportunity to fight vaccine misinformation. By effectively utilising their platform to advocate for routine immunisation, we can foster better understanding and an acceptance of vaccines in their vast audience. This collective effort can play a pivotal role in achieving a polio-free world.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2024

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