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In Eswatini, Pact launches app to fight Covid misinformation, vaccine hesitancy

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Эсватини
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Pact
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Corinne Reilly

Pact has a long history of helping communities in Eswatini overcome health challenges. For years, we’ve worked to reduce HIV infections, most recently through the USAID-funded Insika ya Kusasa program. The program offers tailored support for children and adolescents affected by HIV, including case management and home visits.

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, Pact had to adapt. Although the first wave of the virus wasn’t as bad as in many other countries, it still hit Swazis hard. Pact’s community case workers immediately noticed one issue in particular: The families they served didn’t have much accurate information about Covid.

“Whenever there is a vacuum of correct information, misinformation tends to fill that gap,” says Chantelle Hulett, Pact’s HIV prevention technical lead in Eswatini. Insika ya Kusasa quickly adjusted its programming to meet this need, sharing facts with families via phone counseling sessions, text messages and home visits when safe.

Then earlier this year, the Insika team saw its best opportunity yet to stop Covid misinformation. USAID provided Pact with additional funding to help build demand at the community level for Covid vaccinations.

“We immediately thought an app was what we needed. Radio and newspapers are good, but we worried we’d miss certain groups, especially young people, if we used only traditional media,” Hulett says. “So much of the misinformation was spreading online, on Facebook and platforms like that, so we wanted to counter that online as well.”

Thus was born the Health Alert App.

To get it launched as quickly as possible, Pact built on an existing health app developed by a South African company. “It had the skeleton we needed,” says Mncedisi Dlamini, Pact’s social and behavior change communications (SBCC) manager in Eswatini, who took a leading role in the app.

In support of Eswatini’s Ministry of Health, Pact developed content for the app and trained staff to use its backend functions.

Health Alert works through the popular messaging app WhatsApp, which is already widely used in Eswatini. Users can text “Hi” to Health Alert’s number, click a link or scan a QR code to instantly begin engaging with Health Alert.

"Whenever there is a vacuum of correct information, misinformation tends to fill that gap."

In addition to an information center with lots of basic facts and FAQs about Covid and vaccine safety, the app features updated statistics on infections and vaccine uptake across Eswatini, as well as important messages that the government wants to share, such information about Covid-related curfews and vaccine news, like when new groups become eligible.

Through the app, Swazis can also find a location and register to get vaccinated and download proof of vaccination once inoculated. Users can also ask questions about Covid and vaccines, which are answered through the app by a trained health worker.

“It really does quite a lot,” Dlamini says. “There is also lots of pertinent information for those with comorbidities such as HIV or diabetes, since we saw that need in working with communities.”

Eswatini received its first consignment of Covid-19 vaccines in April. After a gap in supply, it got more in June, and then more just recently. As of late August, just over 11 percent of Eswatini’s 1.3 million people had been vaccinated.

“In the beginning, people were hesitant,” Hulett says. “We think it will really pick up now that more information about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines is being shared.”

The Health Alert App was just approved by Eswatini’s Ministry of Health, and Pact and its partners are now promoting it across the country. Pact’s community case workers are sharing it with families they serve, and the app will also be advertised on television and radio. PSI, which has received USAID funding to promote vaccination at the national level, is also leveraging the app.

As more people use it, Pact will adapt Health Alert based on needs. “For example, our community case workers were hearing lots of concerns about the vaccine for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, so we added highlights about how it is safe for these groups,” Dlamini says.

“I think the app’s best feature is how wide it can reach.”