WHO official explains why we need a global vaccine disinformation strategy
The creation of effective vaccines has provided a lifeline in the world’s worst pandemic. But the targeted use of technology to support vaccination and tackle the spread of false information will prove crucial to putting it more clearly in the rearview mirror.
To fully understand this point, Hans Kluge, WHO Europe Region Director, visited the Health Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference in Las Vegas on Tuesday to discuss the urgent need for global strategies to combat disinformation. and leverage AI to identify – and quickly help – communities with low immunization rates.
“Too many policy decisions are still made on the basis of assumptions and perceptions,” said Kluge, who created a WHO unit focused on behavioral and cultural knowledge to understand the drivers of vaccine reluctance. and develop programs to counter it. “Increased digital literacy and reliable sources of information save lives. It is so important.
In a high-profile conversation with STAT, Kluge spoke about the need for a more coordinated technology strategy, noting that modern communication platforms – and especially social media – have extended the reach of conspiracy theories that distort the politics of public health, prolonging the pandemic, and causing more deaths.
But he also pointed out that technology can be a tremendous asset, if not an antidote, in the fight against a virus whose roots are as social and political as they are cellular. This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.
What are the pillars of a global technological strategy to fight Covid-19?
There is a lot of polarization in our society. We see it globally, in the United States and in Europe, and there is a lot of hesitation about vaccines. So first of all, it is very important that we use digital technologies to check who is vaccinated, who is not and who has only received a first dose. Because the Delta variant, for example, crosses the first dose. Second, we need an electronic Covid certificate.
Digital technologies can help us standardize the standards and requirements for such a certificate. It is really very important to know if people are vaccinated but also to measure the coverage and effectiveness of vaccines.
What should be done to fight against disinformation and make its spreaders accountable?
We need to work with governments and judicial authorities to develop a framework on how to solve this problem. The context we face on a global scale is a great distrust of public authorities [and] public governance and almost endless sources of information. It changes the whole way of communicating with people. What can we do? Work a lot more with communities, be they faith communities, youth communities, media communities, and identify champions. People are anxious, so we can’t point the finger at them and blame them.
What role do you see artificial intelligence playing in supporting a more effective public health response?
We need to harness the power of digital health and artificial intelligence. First of all, we have to be a better listener. And second, we need to better anticipate people’s concerns. I would like to give the example that WHO has taken. This is called EARS (Early AI-supported Response with Social listening tool).
It is a tool that crawls public blogs, news articles and online forums. So far, we’re doing it around 41 different stories, in 20 countries and four languages to hear what’s going on and anticipate the spread of disinformation. [and its effects]. My experience is that once people get emotional, the evidence doesn’t help anymore. We must therefore be one step ahead. Only the power of artificial intelligence can help us in this regard.
How do you balance individual rights and privacy with these very important public health efforts?
It depends a lot on the governance of your country. This is one of the main things I will discuss with Dr. [Anthony] Fauci. Imagine that there are still 440,000 people who think it is a hoax, for example. We must approach this issue with respect for freedom of expression, including on social media. So we don’t have to be on the defensive, but do some of the things I mentioned to counter and anticipate.
At what point in the public health response should policies become more aggressive, possibly requiring vaccination to access public spaces and other freedoms?
What I have in mind is compulsory vaccination. In more and more countries, it is mandatory for health workers to be vaccinated, but again this measure was taken as a last resort in order to protect public health. I mean, we now have a tool that doesn’t necessarily prevent infections, but at least in the majority of cases, serious illness and death. Vaccines save lives. And we will never get out of the pandemic if we have unvaccinated health workers.
So maybe we will need to think more about this – not through a top-down approach, but through dialogue. In Europe, we have President Macron in France, who made a public speech on television to make the vaccine mandatory [to gain access to entertainment venues]. At the same time we have [Chancellor] Merkel in Germany saying it’s not mandatory. There is no simple answer here. We need to work with people and have empathy.
What are some of the most effective uses of technology and public policy to encourage immunization?
In Denmark, where the WHO regional office in Europe is based, the population has great confidence in the government and there is no dissatisfaction with the Covid pass. If you want to go to a nightclub, restaurant or cinema, you present your digital certificate. There is no compulsory vaccination. If you don’t want to be vaccinated in Denmark, no one will force you. But if you want to get back to social life, you need to show a negative Covid test within the past three days or proof that you’ve recovered from a Covid-19 infection within the past six months. People understand that this is the price to pay for freedom and they are very happy and appreciate the government. The economy is booming.