Polio vaccine: The Health Ministry holds an online dialogue with the public, August-October 2013

Following the discovery of the polio virus in the sewage system in southern Israel in May 2013 and its subsequent spread to other areas, the Israeli Ministry of Health decided to launch an emergency program to revaccinate the country’s 1.3 million children, aged 0-9. We were asked to design a strategy and a campaign on the social networks that would provide both vital information and responses to parents’ questions in order to support the Health Ministry’s goal of attaining a 70% vaccination rate.

Israeli children are routinely vaccinated during infancy with the dead, or inactive, form of the virus, which meant they would not contract the disease but they could be carriers of it. Under the emergency plan, all children were to be given the oral polio vaccine, consisting of a weakened form of the live virus. Thus, the purpose of the revaccination was not to protect the children from the disease but to prevent them from becoming carriers who could infect unvaccinated people.

The challenge: Beyond the general controversy regarding childhood immunization, we anticipated that some parents would not readily grasp the necessity for revaccination and that opponents were liable to use the social media to organize resistance to the step.  

The strategy: Dialogue and maximum transparency. Instead of the ministry unilaterally handing down guidance to the public in a one-way conversation, as it were, it would hold an informative and open dialogue that directly addressed the parents’ concerns, with health professionals on hand to answer their questions and allay their fears. Health Ministry doctors were trained in communicating effectively online. At the same time, we prepared catchy and informative video material for viral distribution, explaining why the national immunization drive was necessary.

After mobilizing the relevant local social media platforms, we invited the public to ask any and all questions, which were answered in frequent real-time chats with Health Ministry doctors on the social media linked to TV networks and other forums, as well as on the Health Ministry’s home page. In response to frequently asked questions and opposition statements, video clips, mainly based on infographics, were posted on YouTube and were complemented by well-designed Facebook banners featuring commonly asked questions and answers. These visuals drew hundreds of thousands of views. As the vaccination program progressed, we held frequent chats and live video events with senior doctors that were aimed at various population groups and communities.

Some parents were fiercely opposed to the concept and we had to deal with various theories about the campaign’s “true purpose,” rumors about serious side effects and in general, a great deal of disinformation. Opponents to the move also received coverage in the regular press, which fed the online opposition and vice versa.

However, the ongoing dialogue and straightforward explanations proved themselves. No question remained unanswered and we often managed to balance or even change the tone of discussion.

The outcome: Some 980,000 children were immunized and the spread of the virus was stopped. The Health Ministry won praise from the World Health Organization for the campaign and its results. In addition, the polio campaign reached the finalist stage of PR WEEK Magazine’s 2014 global awards competition, in the public sector category. 

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