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Battling misinformation: Vaccine education and awareness in Lebanon

Alamia Annous conducting awareness raising workshops for medical staff in Tripoli Hospital (D Ritzau-Reid, Lebanon 2020)

Alamia Annous is a UK-Med RCCE (Risk Communication and Community Engagement) Advisor working as part of the UK Emergency Medical Team’s (UK EMT) response in Lebanon.  Trained as a teacher, she has experience teaching vulnerable people, including Palestinian and Syrian refugees. For the past two months, she’s been delivering vaccine awareness workshops in Tripoli and Halba, two of the cities where UK-Med is working until the end of March. She shares her experience here.

Combating the myths

The news of the first COVID-19 vaccine in November last year has raised many questions amongst people in Lebanon. And myths and misinformation, particularly on social media, have been rife.

“Many people don’t really understand the mechanism of vaccination,” Alamia explains. “There are anti-vaxxers, in all countries, who think, ‘you’re putting a virus into your body, and why would you do that?’

The UK EMT’s work developing vaccine awareness workshops began last year to provide essential, impartial information which had been verified by WHO and UNICEF. The team included Alamia, fellow RCCE Specialist Diana Maddah, ICU Nurse John IrvineDr. Arnold MbaasaDr. Johannes Janssen and Dr. Lazaro Martinez, an ICU Doctor.  

“We’re not there to campaign for any type of vaccine,” Alamia emphasises, “but rather share information that is credible and not based on rumours. Then they have the opportunity to make a decision based on fact rather than misinformation.”   

``Youth are the most important. They are the ones who are going to go to the parents and say, ‘the vaccines are safe!' ``

Reaching everyone in the community

In January, the team started rolling out the workshops to staff across 6 hospitals in 6 different cities. Critically, they offered sessions to not only the doctors and nurses but all hospital personnel.

“I’ve had sessions with the hospital janitors, administrators and security guards,” Alamia says.

“I specifically pushed for them to be part of it because I believe that it’s not just the nurses who can benefit from this information. And a lot of times we forget about the rest of those who are working in the hospital as if they’re not vulnerable.”

An important element of the project has been ToT (training of trainers), which has taken the workshops beyond the hospitals to the British Embassy, other NGOs such as IMC, and even the Scouts.

“I reached out to one of the Scout organisers,” Alamia explains. “We actually had Scout members – as young as like 11 years old, attending this vaccine awareness session.

Youth are the most important. They are the ones who are going to go to the parents, ‘oh, but the vaccines are safe!’ And this builds with them over time, the idea that vaccines are not something to be scared of – it’s science.”

The workshops have been offered to nurses, doctors, security guards and administrative staff in six hospitals across six cities.

This outreach work has been pivotal in Alamia and Diana’s work having far-reaching effects on thousands of people across sections of the community.

“I mean it starts with the health sector, but hospitals are so cut off from the rest of society. We often don’t realise how isolated they actually are, so I think it was really good to also be tackling other parts of the community.” 

Building trust and connections

Leading these workshops has required adapting styles to audiences with varying levels of medical and scientific knowledge, which is where Alamia’s background in education takes centre-stage.

“RCCE is a form of education – you’re communicating risks to the community,” Alamia says. “You need to have a certain awareness of the people that you are working with.

“Part of this role is seeking out people, being able to communicate properly, getting messages across, and working out how you give information in a way that people can absorb it.”

Establishing that Alamia was local, as well as outside of the medical profession, were assets to creating a ‘safe zone’ and building comfort with participants.

“UK-Med wanted someone who was able to communicate with the community because they are from the community,” she says. When people found out she was from neighbouring city, they’d smile and relax. “It’s so great to know that people feel comfortable.

“I’ll tell participants that actually, originally, I’m a teacher, and I have people – the doctors from UK EMT, for example – who are professionals to help to facilitate the questions that I cannot answer.

“They know that I’m not there to lecture them about how I know more than them. You have to respect their boundaries, their knowledge and their experiences, and yeah, it usually works out pretty well!” 

“Part of this role is seeking out people, being able to communicate properly, getting messages across, and working out how you give information in a way that people can absorb it.”

Changing attitudes 

Although the workshop’s impact is still being assessed, Alamia has already noticed a change in the attitudes who took part in them; particularly since Lebanon began rolling out vaccines in mid-February.

One story that struck her in particular, was when a Head Nurse of an ICU COVID Ward came and watched one of the very first vaccination sessions.

“I remember her coming to me at the end of the workshop, and she told me, ‘I was one of those people that said there’s no way I’m taking that vaccine. And now you’ve completely changed my mind!

“It was so wonderful because when the vaccines started, she was one of the first people to get it, and she came to me tell me, ‘I feel fine! I’m so happy I took that decision.

“I think, for sure, that was a success story for me. It was amazing. It felt really good to be trusted.”

Congratulations to Alamia and the entire team for their fantastic work in Lebanon. Although the UK EMT’s activities in Lebanon are coming to an end this month, the training workshops will be taken forward by UNICEF, which will allow Diana and Alamia’s brilliant work to continue.

UK-Med, as part of the UK Emergency Medical Team (UK EMT) has been in Lebanon since last August, where they have been supporting the country’s COVID-19 response. Read more about UK-Med’s response in Lebanon.  

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