(Featured Image: Pippa Ranger, Innovation Advisor, DFID)
In the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic, vaccination is a hot topic globally. In America, 400,000 people have died. We still don’t have a uniform understanding of the efficacy, distribution, availability, and side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Thankfully our 46th President, Joseph R. Biden has signed several executive orders including a 100-day mask mandate, to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up vaccine production, mount a vaccination campaign and expand testing and treatment. While we struggle to rid some people of their vaccine hesitancy in the US, countries with less robust economies, have problems with logistics.
Vaccines are available but children are not getting vaccinated against communicable diseases like polio, mumps, measles, and rubella. The majority of the world’s undervaccinated children are in India (about 10 million each year). A child dies in India every 4 minutes from a disease that could have been prevented by a vaccine.
What an appalling loss of human life in the 21st century! The government of India is aware of this problem, and they have vaccines but local health departments in rural and semi-urban India need assistance streamlining access to children. As a medical student at LTMMC, we went on vaccination drives to the Dharavi slums, but door to door vaccination, although effective, is very labor-intensive and may not be feasible because of the lack of manpower and portability of temperature-sensitive vaccines. WHO is encouraging think tanks to come up with innovative solutions.
Suvita came up with a practical solution brainstorming with a network of young like-minded affiliates. What if they used the most accessible communication device, a cell phone, to solve this problem? Team Suvita recognized that most families in India have at least one cell phone. If they could send an SMS reminder to the parents to take their kids for immunization, they would improve compliance.
Prevent disease! Save lives!
But to make the message more effective, they went one step further. They based their policy and procedures on a Nobel prize-winning work of Abhijit Banerjee, who received 2019 The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel “for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.”
It employed the idea of using the so-called “village gossip” or euphemistically speaking, an ambassador to influence human behavior. Having them send personalized SMS reminders to caregivers, informing them when their child is due for a vaccination, worked. Not only did this approach reduce the workload of individual health care workers, but emerging evidence also suggests that a combination of both these methods is more effective and more cost-effective than either in isolation.
So far 200,000 parents have enrolled in Suvita”s SMS program. Their staff has achieved the following milestones: a signed Memorandum of Understanding with the Maharashtra Family Welfare Bureau and partnerships with Maharashtra and Bihar state governments. There are 100,000 eligible children in the Saran district of Bihar. They plan to reach at least 50,000 eligible children in 2021. Scaling up SMS reminders program starting with 2 districts in Maharashtra and the whole of Saran district over the course of 2021.
Like all wonderful projects, Suvita’s efforts have faced a few challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic lockdown has affected access to ambassadors and parents. As the program expands, there will be a need for additional funds for staff workers and carefully selected volunteer immunization ambassadors. Measures are in place to protect the personal information of users, thereby limiting the risk of a data breach and exposure of personal information to data-hungry merchants.
If Suvita takes appropriate security precautions and the model thrives, this nudge technique can be expanded to many health, wellness, education, and safety programs. It’s wonderful to harness the self-proclaimed busybodies/gossips for social and economic betterment.
I would like to share an interesting personal anecdote to illustrate Suvita’s role model with you. While writing this article, I was explaining the concept of vaccination to a ten-year-old. After three rounds of easy-to-understand information about the basic concept of vaccination, he had a question. He said: “ Grandma, are you stating a fact, or are you telling me a story?” I was amazed at his query. He questioned my source because I was not in his “peer” group but if the same information would have come from his friend or known social media platform, he would have accepted it!
Monita Soni is a pathologist. She has one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity. Monita has published many poems, essays, and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow Through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.