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Misinformation, Society and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Studying COVID-19 Misinformation Research and Intervention in Trans-Nzoia, Kenya

By: Jamie Minchin, Senior Associate, Vaccine Acceptance and Demand, and Meaghan Charlton, Senior Manager, Vaccine Acceptance

Source: Sabin Vaccine Institute

Misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted vaccination efforts in Trans-Nzoia country, Kenya, coupled with challenges to accessing health services during lockdowns and community fear of contracting the virus. However, local research is needed to explore the specific social dynamics of the spread of misinformation in the rural Kenyan community and its impact on the acceptance of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Sabin Social and Behavioral Interventions for Vaccination Acceptance Small Grants Program is proud to support researchers from both the University of Nairobi and AMUA Sikhendu Medical Center in Kitale collaborating to design a virtual research project and implement a virtual, community co-developed intervention to mitigate the spread and impact of COVID-19 misinformation in Trans-Nzoia.

The study team, led by Dr. Benson Wamalwa from the University of Nairobi, will build upon their baseline research identifying a gap in the existing research: understanding community perceptions of vaccinations and healthcare interactions in rural communities. Whereas research has historically focused on urban centers, the project team found that in this rural Kenyan community, community members express “health facility visit hesitancy” and face potential negative social consequences that could impact their uptake of a future COVID-19 vaccine.

The first stage of the Sabin-funded project will employ a mixed-methods approach to research the demographic variation among community members when it comes to their intention to vaccinate. The team will test the hypothesis that misinformation and risk perceptions about COVID-19 are associated with intent to accept a future COVID-19 vaccine among Trans-Nzoia’s adult population. Drawing upon these findings, the study team will then develop and evaluate a virtual, community-led intervention amplifying positive COVID-19 messaging and providing alternatives to COVID-19 misinformation.

“Our team works to improve access to life-saving vaccines among underserved communities that have sustained pockets of under-immunization due to misinformation and other barriers,” said Dr. Wamalwa when asked about the project. “We are excited to be implementing this project whose overarching goal is to increase vaccine acceptance at such an opportune time of a potential COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Kenya and the rest of the world.”

The intervention component of the project will draw upon and engage a local network of researchers, healthcare workers and trusted community members, who will work in partnership to identify and codify COVID-19 misinformation spreading through their local social networks. Intervention participants will be engaged through a virtual space to better understand the role health care providers and trusted community leaders play in influencing vaccination behaviors.

In the last phase of the project, the research team will collaborate with their community partners to co-develop virtual tools, such as counter-messaging, that address misinformation in real-time. The counter-messages will be tailored to local discourse in Trans-Nzoia and in the local language so that they resonate. To test this approach, the project team will create a virtual space, in which community members will circulate the counter-messaging to address COVID-19 misinformation in real time. Dr. Wamalwa and team will track the attitudes and intent to vaccinate among individuals in the virtual space, before and after disseminating counter-messaging.

In after analysis, the team will review the impact of co-developed counter-messaging on addressing the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. Dr. Wamalwa and his team’s findings will help us better understand the benefit and impact of community-designed and locally tailored messaging on intentions to vaccinate.

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