29 Mar 2021


By Marcfarlane Mbewe

Frontline health care workers, students, young mothers, researchers, pastors, and local leaders work together to develop effective ways to engage with vaccination in sub-Saharan Africa. 

This multi-sectoral consensus follows a two-day participatory workshop held from 23 March in the commercial capital, Blantyre organized by the UK-Africa vaccine engagement project, “One for All-All for One".

The workshop drew over 30 participants from various sectors of Malawi society including youth, students, traditional leaders, the clergy, health workers & young parents.  It aimed at soliciting ideas that can help in the development of tools aimed at spurring conversation on vaccines and community immunity.

In their opinions most of the participants, largely young people, emphasized on the need for those that develop health messages to involve the end users in the development process to ensure ownership and sustenance. This comes as the country, which is predominantly conservative and religious, battles the rise in misinformation and disinformation about vaccination. 

In addition, the participants highlighted language choice as a key barrier to communicating health information to rural communities. The participants therefore recommended that developers of health messages and tools to critically consider using languages relevant to target areas. Realizing that illiteracy is a huge challenge especially in Malawi's rural areas, Lameck Zidana, a Health Surveillance Assistant, proposed that medical terminologies should be creatively explained in a deliberate attempt to engage the rural masses.

Mary Nkhoma, a church minister, stated that religious leaders are instrumental is stimulating and sustaining the conversation on vaccines because they are highly regarded as agents of change by most people in the country.

Divided into groups, the participants deliberated as they took the first step into developing various tools and messages that can assist communicators and creatives in developing targeted and effective vaccination engagement campaigns.

Their exotic ideas were brought to the attention of South African creatives practitioners lead by Nabeel Petersen, who together with his team, helped facilitate the discussions via the online video conferencing platform Zoom. Due to the on-going pandemic, the workshop complied with COVID secure protocols and was carried out in English and Chichewa. 

A visibility excited Petersen described the workshop as an extremely important step towards empowering people in Malawi to develop locally embedded vaccination engagement tools. 

Also participating in the proceedings was UK based Bella Starling, the project's co-lead. Watching from afar, the community engagement specialist stressed, in her opening remarks, that  co-creation of communications about vaccines and vaccine research is essential, adding that she was so excited to see the project making significant strides towards achieving its aims. 

The deputy director of Preventative Health Services in the ministry of Health, Mabvuto Thomasi opened the workshop on behalf of the Malawi government. He assured the participants that policy makers are listening and considering the outputs of the projects therefore describing such a gathering as very critical. 

Thomasi also stated that his presence signified strong ties that exist between government and independent research organizations such as the MLW. 

The participants also had an expert interactive session with viral immunologist, Marah Chibwana and Latif Ndeketa, a vaccinologist both from the MLW. The session focused on the process of manufacturing vaccines and their functionality. The two medical experts also enlightened the gathering on rumors, fears and conspiracy theories surrounding the UK developed anti-Covid 19 vaccine, Astrazeneca which is being administered in Malawi.  

In his closing remarks, Rodrick Sambakunsi, the Mucosal Pathogens Research Unit (MPRU) Public Engagement Manager, who is also the project manager of “One for All-All for One” reiterated the importance of ensuring that all the participants to this participatory workshop be part of the whole process of co-creating the vaccine engagement resources until end. He, therefore, indicated that this process is ongoing hence the need for all the attendees to ensure that they maintain a close working relationship with the project and attend  subsequent workshops to ensure consistency and continuity.

The “One for All: All for One” vaccine engagement project seeks to kindle dialogue with diverse audiences in Africa and UK on herd immunity and vaccine hesitancy. The three-year project is funded by Wellcome Trust and NIHR Global Health Research Unit on Mucosal Pathogens in collaboration with Vocal and MLW.