Since the coronavirus emerged early last year, scientists and pharmaceutical companies have worked at record speed to research and develop safe and effective vaccines against COVID-19. Fourteen months after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, more than 1.6 billion doses of vaccine have been administered worldwide – a remarkable achievement offering hope of beating the disease and finally regaining some semblance of normality.

Yet creating an effective vaccine is only half the battle because people still need to be convinced to take it. In some countries in Central and West Asia, many have concerns about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. According to a survey in Georgia, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, only about a quarter of adults believed that all vaccines that have been tested by the responsible authorities are safe.

Do you think the vaccines developed in the world are safe? Survey table

About 32% said that even if the vaccine were free and certified safe by their governments, they still would not get inoculated, most commonly citing concerns over side effects.

Distrust of vaccines has its origins partly in ‘infodemia’, the spread of false information and data that affects public opinion. Disinformation existed long before the internet but as people spent more time online during the pandemic, a proliferation of non-scientific claims and conspiracy theories on social media has distorted public perceptions of the disease and jeopardized attitudes towards vaccination programs.

Would you and your family members get vaccinated for free? Survey table

The survey covered 7,000 people and was conducted in December 2020 and January 2021, before the rollout of mass vaccination campaigns. Although survey sampling always has limitations in terms of population coverage, this survey is representative in terms of gender, age, nationality, and place of residence. The findings are indicative of the sentiment, at the time of polling in these countries, that may impede efficient vaccination.

The survey was conducted by the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) Institute, an intergovernmental organization that undertakes research and capacity building for the CAREC Program. CAREC is a partnership for 11 countries to promote economic growth and development through regional cooperation.

Ending the pandemic in Central and West Asia will require a concerted effort by governments and other stakeholders to boost public trust in COVID-19 vaccines. Here are five ways to do it according to the CAREC Institute:

1. Engage medical professionals in COVID-19 vaccine advocacy campaigns

72% of respondents in the seven countries expressed trust in COVID-19 preventive measures and treatment recommendations by medical professionals. However, fewer than one in five cited medical workers as a main source of information on vaccinations.

This suggests that when it comes to convincing people to get vaccinated, doctors and nurses should be involved – not only through high-level media appearances but also in grassroots information campaigns ideally supported by medical associations.

2. Target interventions to specific social groups

Given that demographics, whether people live in rural or urban settings, and levels of education affect people’s perceptions of vaccines, policymakers should take this into account when designing interventions. Rural residents, for example, would benefit from information campaigns given their generally lower levels of awareness.

Women often make the decisions on immunization for their families, so it is essential for them to have positive attitudes towards vaccination. The survey found that the most common reason for participating in vaccination programs is for family protection, so policymakers should consider making this an integral idea in advocacy campaigns.

3. Address both vaccine side effects and the misperception that COVID-19 is not serious

Concern about possible side effects was found to be respondents’ main reason for rejecting vaccines. It is essential that people who have been vaccinated share their experiences and their state-of-being via traditional and social media channels.

People who have recovered from COVID-19 should also share their experiences to fight misperceptions that the disease is not that serious or even altogether fake. Younger people sharing their experiences will help to counteract the belief that only elderly people are seriously affected.  

At every stage of the information campaign, it is important to emphasize the main goal of vaccination – to avoid disease complications and help the population return to the previous rhythm of life.

Reasons you would not get or did not get vaccination? Survey results graph

4. Take the epidemiological culture into account

Policymakers must also pay close attention to the epidemiological culture in their countries. This includes general levels of compliance with sanitary and hygiene standards, disinfection, wearing masks during viral infection spikes, and avoiding crowded places among their populations.

Unlike in countries such as Japan and the Republic of Korea which have well-established cultures of mask-wearing, the seven countries surveyed had no such culture. This made it difficult to promote the acceptance of medical mask-wearing within a short timeframe.

5. Use various information channels and increase media literacy

Vaccination campaigns should be implemented using a diverse mix of widely consumed information sources in each country. These could include the dissemination of leaflets and other physical information through stands, medical institutions, shopping centers, and markets. Civil society organizations also have a key role to play. So do religious leaders, whose recommendations are important for reaching significant segments of the population.

To counteract the influence of misinformation, policymakers should focus on increasing media literacy among their citizens, and equip them with the tools to check facts, identify credible news, and critically evaluate the information they receive from different media sources.