Vaccine hesitancy is a much bigger problem in India than anti-vaxxerism, which also exists in pockets. While short supply of vaccines slowed the pace of inoculation, hesitancy has dogged the vaccination programme right from the beginning.
As vaccine availability improves, the government must focus on the next big challenge: vaccine hesitancy. The central government needs to work with all partners and stakeholders to tackle hesitancy if it is to achieve herd immunity by year-end.
Vaccine hesitancy is a much bigger problem in India than anti-vaxxerism, which also exists in pockets. While short supply of vaccines slowed the pace of inoculation, hesitancy has dogged the vaccination programme right from the beginning. Healthcare and frontline workers were the first group to be vaccinated beginning January 16. Rumours about adverse effects of vaccines such as inducing sterility led to poor turnout among healthcare professionals, particularly nurses. Low vaccination rates among healthcare workers did not inspire public confidence. After five months, only 56% of healthcare workers and 47% of frontline workers nationwide have been fully vaccinated. The vaccination rate has to improve, and addressing hesitancy is critical. This will require clear and constant messaging on the benefits and necessity of being vaccinated. The outreach must be calibrated to fit the requirement of the audience — using local language, culturally relatable messaging, relying on locally trusted figures to deliver the message, small meetings and door-to-door campaigns — to address concerns. This is particularly true for rural areas where mistrust and ignorance of the health system is strong. Rumours, hearsay and hesitance expressed by prominent locals can have debilitating impact on the vaccination drive. Therefore, information needs to be put out constantly and the efficacy of vaccines must be demonstrated. The government must put out information, from the more technical to easy to understand, on vaccines. While it should rope in popular icons to push vaccination, it must also involve doctors and scientists in the process.
India has a history of surmounting hesitancy to pave the way for successful inoculation programmes. Learnings from past efforts such as Pulse Polio must be leveraged.