As the world has seen and experienced during the pandemic, vaccinating populations requires much more than a vaccine. While the availability of a vaccine is one important component, a variety of factors can influence vaccination rates and coverage. Some, like geographic, logistical, and health system factors have been a challenge to ensuring complete and timely vaccination of children for underserved communities for decades; the pandemic has exacerbated these problems. Other factors can be related to gender, social norms, or misinformation.

From October 2021 to February 2022 with funding from the Vaccine Confidence Fund, Mali Health worked with women and communities to understand the factors influencing knowledge of and confidence in COVID-19 vaccination in underserved peri-urban communities. We then developed and tested messages for Kènèya Blon, the local, voice-based smartphone application that we developed with women in Sabalibougou, a peri-urban community in Bamako.

Collecting data directly from community members was essential to understanding the factors that influenced confidence in the vaccine, and therefore how to address them. The end users were involved in every step of the original development of the Kènèya Blon platform. When assessing how to use it to address vaccine confidence as a part of this project, their participation was vital again.

We used participatory methods to understand attitudes and behaviors related to vaccination, and the norms which govern them. At the beginning of project, 95% of those surveyed did not trust COVID-19 vaccines and had no intention of getting vaccinated. According to the same survey, the primary reason given was a lack of access to trusted health sources that could provide accurate information, or correct misinformation. A lack of access to health professionals and reliable health information was a key factor in acting on misinformation and the adoption of positive behavior changes.

These findings reinforced what we learned earlier during our work as a part of the WomenConnect Challenge, Then, we learned that access to reliable health information is one of the highest priorities and biggest challenges for the women we serve. Access to information was even linked to gender equality, not only in the minds of women, but in the minds of men and community leaders. Because women living in peri-urban communities had limited opportunities to go to school where they could gain reading and writing skills, they face barriers to accessing reliable information.

The Kènèya Blon platform was designed to address this primary challenge. During the project, users had access to accurate public health information about COVID-19 and that addressed rumors and misninformation circulating in their community. They were also able to access health personnel to express their concerns related to COVID-19 vaccination and receive responses to their questions. These features were designed by women, for women – using a what we call women-centered design approaches – but its impact extends far beyond its users.

We attribute the significant short-term results of the project to this rapid access to trusted information, because it met the primary need community members expressed. To learn more about the results and lessons we documented about vaccine confidence, please continue reading our next post.