The world’s largest Covid-19 vaccination programme is underway, but scepticism about vaccines threatens to set the recovery process back. India can ill afford it, especially now when it is riding the second, potentially more severe wave.
To clear apprehensions about vaccines, India’s collective of young scientists and engineers launched a nationwide vaccine awareness campaign on Tuesday, 6 April.
“We believe as a young body of responsible scientists and engineers, it is our duty to participate in making people aware about the benefits of immunisation through vaccine and abolish the myths which are deterring people from taking the shots,” Indian National Young Academy of Sciences (INYAS) said about the .
Dr Chandra Shekhar Sharma, INYAS chair and associate professor at IIT Hyderabad, said that doubts about vaccines were not limited to any one group of people, but rather extended even to the “highly educated” population.
“Rather than simply ignoring their (the public’s) apprehensions, we as an academy of young scientists feel that there is a need to reach out to the people and answer their queries to the best of knowledge available. This whole effort is an outcome of this thought process, which was initiated at least two months back,” he said during the virtual campaign launch.
The effort was launched online with chief guest Professor Ashutosh Sharma, secretary of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), unveiling documents containing information about vaccines. Eleven versions of the document have been released to ensure information reaches people beyond the English- and Hindi-speaking parts.
The regional languages in which the documents are available are Bengali, Bhojpuri, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Odia, Tamil, and Telugu. (The documents can be ).
In addition to the myth-buster documents, INYAS has launched its self-made mobile application called COVAC NEWS.
The guest of honour, Indian National Science Academy (INSA) president Chandrima Shaha displayed the app briefly during the launch, but the app is yet to be available to the public for downloading from Google Play (as of writing this report). It may take up to two days to go live on the Google store.
Though COVAC NEWS will be an Android-based app to begin with, an iOS app is said to be coming soon.
INYAS’ rationale for making the app was simple. “Information on fingertips is one of the very important aspects of information dissemination in this digital age,” explains Dr Upasana Ray, Senior Scientist and Deputy Head, Infectious Diseases and Immunology, CSIR-Indian Institute of Chemical Biology. Given that apps find ubiquitous use among people, developing an app was the way to go.
Once live, information on the app will become available through any of the four tabs — know about vaccines, myths and facts, information on competition, and Gyanteeka webinars.
While the contents of the first two tabs are easy to recognise, the third and fourth pertain to the two additional offerings by INYAS as part of their multi-pronged approach.
As part of a Pan-India Infographic Video and Audio Competition (PIVAC), the academy is seeking entries in the form of infographics or audio-videos with the goal of spreading awareness about vaccines. Virtually anyone can apply.
Winning entries, picked out by a panel of judges, will receive cash prizes ().
Gyanteeka, on the other hand, is a webinar series. “Through this webinar series, our aim is to provide an authentic platform to communicate the latest development(s) on vaccine(s) in general and Covid-19 vaccine in particular,” said Dr Sharma.
Two webinars have already been completed and they featured eminent speakers like virologists Dr Shahid Jameel and Dr Gagandeep Kang.
The awareness campaign has been about two months in the making and nearly 25 INYAS members have been directly involved in building it.
In her introductory remarks at the launch, INYAS member and IIT Hyderabad associate professor Dr Mudrika Khandelwal reminded people that vaccination has worked historically. “This is not the first time that humankind is standing against a disease-causing microbe. We have won the battles in the past and we can do it again. Vaccination is one of the most effective ways to fight against diseases,” she said.
Making a similar point, Professor Shaha said, “The smallpox was a dreaded killer and once caused huge casualties, and it is now eliminated from the world… by using simple intelligence techniques that involve society and a vaccine with good efficacy…”
She pointed to polio as another example where vaccines made a great impact. “Polio was once the most feared disease, causing death and paralysis. But today, thanks to vaccination, there are no polio cases in most countries, and it is hoped that there will not be a single child with polio in the next few years,” she said.
Professor Shaha wished to emphasise with these examples that the involvement of society was necessary for a vaccine to be successful.
Besides, mass vaccination will go a long way towards helping achieve herd immunity — where the few receive protection against an infectious disease thanks to the many (50-90 per cent “depending on how contiguous the infection is”) who already have developed immunity.
In his remarks, DST secretary Professor Sharma focused on the need for simple, direct, and effective communication of relevant science — especially the benefits of science — to the general public. He congratulated INYAS and INSA for the campaign.
INYAS has revealed that they have plans to engage with school students in the future as children will be able to help take the information to their families, friends, and neighbourhoods.
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