Fighting the Infodemic: Why We Need to Trust Malaria Vaccines

Malaria is a deadly disease that affects millions of people every year, especially in Africa.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were an estimated 249 million cases of malaria and 608,000 deaths. Most of the victims were children under the age of five.

Fortunately, there is hope for ending this global health challenge. After decades of research and development, several malaria vaccines have been developed and tested for safety and effectiveness. One of them, called RTS, S, has been recommended by the WHO for widespread use in countries with moderate to high levels of malaria transmission. Another one, called R21, has gained approvals in Ghana and Nigeria and is under review in several other African countries.

These vaccines have the potential to save millions of lives and reduce the burden of malaria on health systems and economies. However, they also face a very big obstacle of misinformation and disinformation in many countries including Uganda.

These are false or misleading claims that are spread intentionally or unintentionally through various channels, such as social media, word-of-mouth, or traditional media. Misinformation and disinformation can undermine public trust and confidence in vaccines, and discourage people from getting vaccinated.

Reasons to Trust the Vaccines

Vaccines are products that stimulate our immune system to produce antibodies, which are proteins that can recognize and fight off specific germs that cause diseases. By getting vaccinated, we can train our immune system to protect us from future infections, without getting sick first.

Vaccines are made of different components, depending on the type of vaccine. Some vaccines use whole viruses or bacteria that have been weakened or killed, so they cannot cause disease. These are called live attenuated or inactivated vaccines. Other vaccines use parts of the germs, such as proteins or sugars, that can trigger an immune response.

These are called subunit or conjugate vaccines. Some vaccines use genetic material, such as RNA or DNA, that can instruct our cells to make the proteins that can elicit an immune response. These are called mRNA or DNA vaccines. Some vaccines use another harmless virus to deliver the genetic material or the protein of the germ. These are called viral vector vaccines.

All vaccines have to go through a rigorous process of development and testing before they can be approved for use. This process involves several stages, such as:

  • Preclinical testing: This is where the vaccine is tested in laboratory experiments and animal studies to evaluate its safety and effectiveness.
  • Clinical trials: This is where the vaccine is tested in human volunteers to assess its safety, dosage, and efficacy. Clinical trials are done in phases, starting with a small number of healthy volunteers (phase 1), then expanding to a larger number of people with different characteristics (phase 2), and finally comparing the vaccine with a placebo or another vaccine in a large-scale randomized controlled trial (phase 3).
  • Regulatory review and approval: This is where the vaccine is evaluated by the regulatory authorities, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States or the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in the European Union, based on the data from the clinical trials and the manufacturing standards. The authorities decide whether to authorize or approve the vaccine for use in the general population or in specific groups.
  • Post-marketing surveillance: This is where the vaccine is monitored for any adverse effects or rare events that may occur after it has been authorized or approved. This is done by collecting and analyzing reports from health care providers, vaccine manufacturers, and the public, as well as conducting studies to assess the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness in real-world settings.

Malaria vaccines have been developed and tested following the same rigorous process as any other vaccine. They have been evaluated by independent experts and regulatory authorities, who have confirmed their safety and effectiveness. They have also been endorsed by the WHO, which is the leading global health authority that provides guidance and recommendations on vaccines and other health issues.

Like any other vaccine, there is a need to be used in combination with other preventive measures, such as insecticide-treated bed nets, indoor residual spraying, and antimalarial drugs. However, they can significantly reduce the risk of malaria and its complications, especially in areas where the disease is endemic and the burden is high. They can also contribute to the global goal of eliminating malaria, as part of the WHO’s Global Technical Strategy for Malaria 2016-2030.

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How can we combat misinformation and disinformation about malaria vaccines?

Misinformation and disinformation about malaria vaccines can come from various sources and motives, such as ignorance, confusion, fear, mistrust, or malice. They can take different forms and messages, such as denying the existence or severity of malaria, questioning the safety or effectiveness of the vaccines, spreading rumours or conspiracy theories about the vaccines or their developers, or discouraging or preventing people from getting vaccinated.

To combat misinformation and disinformation about malaria vaccines, we need to adopt a multi-pronged approach that involves the following actions:

Educate: We need to provide accurate, clear, and easy-to-understand information about malaria and its vaccines, using various channels and formats, such as websites, social media, radio, TV, print, or community events. We need to explain what malaria is, how it is transmitted, what its symptoms and complications are, how it can be prevented and treated, and why vaccines are important and beneficial.

We need to address common questions and concerns and debunk myths and falsehoods, using evidence-based facts and data. We need to use trusted messengers and sources, such as healthcare workers, community leaders, religious leaders, or celebrities, who can influence and persuade their audiences. We need to tailor our messages and strategies to different groups and contexts, considering their language, culture, values, and preferences.

Engage: We need to listen to and interact with our target audiences, and understand their perspectives, beliefs, and emotions. We need to acknowledge and empathize with their fears and doubts, and provide reassurance and support. We need to invite and encourage feedback and dialogue, and respond to their queries and comments. We need to involve and empower them in the decision-making and implementation process and solicit their opinions and suggestions. We need to foster and facilitate peer-to-peer communication and social norms, and leverage the power of social networks and influencers.

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Empower: We need to equip and enable our target audiences to access, evaluate, and use information about malaria and its vaccines, and to distinguish between facts and fiction. We need to provide them with the skills and tools to critically analyze and verify the sources, content, and intent of the information they encounter, and to recognize and reject misinformation and disinformation. We need to encourage them to seek and share reliable and credible information, and to report and flag any suspicious or harmful information. We need to promote and reward positive and responsible behaviour, and to celebrate and showcase success stories and role models.

Conclusion; Malaria vaccines are a valuable and promising tool to fight one of the world’s deadliest diseases. They have been developed and tested with the highest standards of quality and safety, and have been proven to be effective and beneficial.

However, they also face the challenge of misinformation and disinformation, which can erode public trust and confidence, and hamper their uptake and impact. To overcome this challenge, we need to educate, engage, and empower our target audiences, and provide them with the information and motivation they need to make informed and rational choices.

By doing so, we can not only protect ourselves and our loved ones from malaria but also contribute to the global effort to eliminate this disease once and for all.

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