As Caribbean Community (CARICOM) states seek to fight against COVID-19 disinformation, the Barbadian head of the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) said she has been horrified at how people of the region have been sucked into anti-vaccination campaigns.
CARPHA Executive Director Dr Joy St John said on Wednesday that despite the great effort of health officials and CARICOM leaders to promote the safe use of COVID-19 vaccines for the benefit of citizens, misleading information surrounding the pandemic has had a negative impact on vaccine uptake.
She said the vaccine hesitancy that swept over North America and Europe had arrived on the shores of the Caribbean as the number of cases of COVID-19 increased.
“I witnessed the most coordinated and relentless campaign of mainly social media-led anti-vaccination messages that I have ever seen in almost 30 years of service as a public health practitioner,” Dr St John said.
“I watched in horror as the people of my region embraced those messages in a way that slowed the success of the creative and wide-reaching COVID-19 vaccination efforts underway from the north to the south of the Caribbean.”
She was speaking at the launch of a joint venture involving CARPHA, UNICEF, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), aimed at promoting confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines and increasing uptake in the region.
USAID, through UNICEF, is providing US$70 000 to assist in the implementation of activities aimed at accelerating COVID-19 vaccine uptake.
Dr St John noted that though historically the region has been a leader in vaccine use, having eliminated polio from the Caribbean, the impact of misinformation about COVID-19 on vaccine uptake was undeniable.
“Prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Caribbean was a worldwide leader in vaccination feats, eliminating polio and achieving vaccination coverage rates over 90 to 95 per cent for routine childhood vaccinations,” she said.
“Just over two years into the pandemic, data is already revealing some erosion of these hard-fought gains made over the years in routine vaccination programmes across the member states. Specific studies in the area are still ongoing; however, it is widely speculated that this is due in part to the overall impact of the relentless infodemic of misinformation and disinformation.”
The CARPHA official also noted that the public fatigue surrounding the pandemic has also played a significant role in the slowing vaccination rates seen across the region.
She added that given the likelihood of additional COVID-19 variants and sub-variants making appearances in the coming months, and possibly years, the partnership between CARPHA, UNICEF, and USAID would go a long way in bolstering the communications campaign to fight back again dangerous misinformation surrounding the pandemic.
“This funding makes it possible to strategically direct targeting messages aimed at keeping the messages relevant to each phase of this pandemic,” Dr St John said.