Vaccine Hesitancy and How the Faith Community Can Help

April 20, 2023

by Kathy Erb

World Immunization Week is an ideal time to celebrate this life-saving intervention and take stock of what we learned from COVID vaccine hesitancy. The challenge public health officials faced with COVID-19 vaccine acceptance may have raised the profile of vaccine hesitancy, but it is not a new phenomenon. Vaccine hesitancy is a global challenge afflicting the broad spectrum of low-, middle-, and high-income countries.

In some cases, hesitancy results from a simple concern about something new; other times it has been fueled by misinformation – either intentional or an honest misunderstanding of the facts. Before COVID-19 made headlines, we heard stories of parents refusing routine childhood vaccines for their children in the US and vaccine workers in some countries facing violence and intimidation due to misinformation.

Photo: Mufid Majnun/Unsplash

Religious leaders and faith communities have played a role in encouraging and discouraging vaccination. Ensuring faith leaders – and others in a position of influence – have clear and accurate information about immunization to share with their communities is key to harnessing this influence and encouraging healthy behaviors.

CCIH Member Equips Faith Leaders to Encourage Pandemic Preparedness

CCIH member the Ecumenical Pharmaceutical Network (EPN) recently took part in a project known as Advocating for Inclusion of FBOs in Sub-Saharan Africa in National COVID-19 Vaccination Programs. The project focused on priority countries, including Burundi, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, and Sierra Leone and targeted faith-based organizations and religious leaders to raise awareness about COVID-19 immunization programs, equipping religious leaders to sensitize communities during an epidemic and before future pandemics.

While the project mainly focused on Christian leaders, EPN also engaged leaders from other congregations, such as Islamic leaders in Niger, Burundi and Cameroon. Through a Call to Action, religious leaders were encouraged to support initiatives within their places of worship and other related community platforms. EPN used webinars and other media platforms to raise awareness among faith leaders.

Round Table discussion in Burundi. From left: Réseau des Confessions Religieuses pour la promotion de la Santé (RCBIF) Vice President; RCBIF CEO; Director of Emergency Preparedness Burundi MOH and Richard Neci CEO of EPN.

Religious leaders were encouraged to support immunization activities and to share accurate information based on scientific facts with their communities, especially vulnerable groups, including orphans. As religious leaders are already equipped with biblical verses, EPN focused on the technical aspects of immunization in order to bridge the gap between faith and science. Baseline and endline Knowledge, Attitude and Practices (KAP) surveys revealed a positive change in attitudes on COVID-19 vaccination among healthcare workers and faith leaders.

Promising Practices to Engage Faith Communities

To identify some promising practices to engage faith communities in vaccine uptake, USAID’s MOMENTUM Country and Global Leadership conducted a deep dive qualitative research exercise in 2021. MOMENTUM looked into lessons learned from four countries: Ghana, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda and found a range of 15 promising practices for engaging local faith actors that may increase the acceptability, uptake, and coverage of COVID-19 in low- and middle-income countries, which are summarized in this brief.

A few examples of the 15 promising practices include:

  • Engage in dialogue with religious leaders using traditional books or scripture, exploring the theological dimensions of specific antigens and linking COVID-19 interventions and vaccination to spiritual principles. In Ghana and Sierra Leone, World Vision’s Channels of Hope COVID-19 modules provide a framework for engaging faith leaders and communities for COVID-19 vaccination, combining dialogue, analysis of religious texts, and exploring social norms to increase the adoption of vaccination.
  • Encourage respected religious leaders to be publicly vaccinated at houses of worship and serve as vaccine champions. Key informants in all four of the countries emphasized how important public vaccination of religious leaders was to encourage COVID-19 vaccine uptake and reduce vaccine hesitancy in their country.
  • Create virtual or in-person safe spaces where religious leaders can ask questions about COVID-19 vaccination in a private or “closed” setting, airing their own concerns about the vaccine in a non-judgmental environment prior to launching further messaging or outreach campaigns. For example, in Indonesia, faith-based organization Muhammadiyah held “Zoominars” and online COVID-19 consultations with clerical bodies at subnational levels to hear their perceptions of the vaccine and share evidence-based information, reaching 1,500 religious leaders. And in Sierra Leone, the Christian Health Association of Sierra Leone held special private sessions in its annual general membership meeting for religious leaders to share concerns around COVID-19 vaccination and address them in advance of the rollout.
Administrative staff assists people to fill out information and consent forms for COVID-19 vaccination. Photo: Dung Tham Chi/MOMENTUM Routine Immunization Transformation and Equity.

In addition to the promising practices report mentioned above, we now have other tools to help address vaccine hesitancy and help all communities – especially faith communities – have accurate information to make informed choices. Below are a few resources and a link to find more on the CCIH website.

Tools for Faith Communities and Partners

  • Promoting Vaccination Toolkit for Collaborating with Faith Communities. This toolkit is designed to equip faith actors and related stakeholders—such as Ministries of Health, medical and scientific bodies, and non-profit organizations that partner with or work alongside faith actors—with the information and tools needed to raise awareness, reduce misinformation, and address barriers that prevent faith communities in particular from engaging in vaccination. It was produced with support from USAID’s MOMENTUM Country and Global Leadership.
  • COVID-19 Vaccine Social Media Toolkit for Faith Communities. CCIH produced a series of social media graphics and messages in 2021 on the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine, with a focus on enduring myths about the vaccine, including quotes and photos of faith leaders encouraging communities to get vaccinated. The image at the top of the article is from this toolkit.
  • WHO EPI-WIN Faith Network webinar series on faith partner resources for health emergencies (2021-2022). This series includes many sessions on immunization, focusing mostly on the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Core Group Polio Eradication Toolkit (2023) This toolkit includes materials from multiple countries such as tools for community mobilization, monitoring and evaluation, training, and materials for a variety of polio eradication approaches.
  • JLI Immunization Learning Hub The Joint Learning Initiative (JLI ) on Faith and Local Communities compiled a number of resources on immunization.
  • How To Have a Conversation about the COVID Vaccine. This blog from CCIH has suggestions for having productive and respectful discussions about vaccines, especially the COVID-19 vaccine.

Visit CCIH Immunization Resources for more tools and material about faith-based work in immunization and how to engage faith communities in vaccine uptake.


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