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U-Report for Risk Communication and Community Engagement – COVID-19 Vaccine chatbot, polls and awareness campaigns in Uganda

U-Report is a messaging tool that can drive social accountability through community participation. Polls and alerts are sent out to U-Reporters, real-time response information is collected, and results are shared. Currently in Uganda there are over 551,000 registered users partnering with over 20 million-plus globally. The average age for U-Reporters in Uganda is 25-30 years (40%). The majority (67%) are males and 33% are females.


Following the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic in Uganda, UNICEF together with the Ministry of health and other partners, have undertaken several interventions while using U-Report as a risk communication tool to help combat the spread of the disease. U-Report was used to reinforce key messages on COVID-19 preventive measures, vaccine awareness campaigns, assessments on vaccine compliance and acceptance. This was done through polls, alerts/informational messages and the vaccine chatbot messages accessed by the general population. These initiatives were undertaken with the key objectives of strengthening the government’s ability to reach young people and communities with information about the vaccine, boosting confidence and reducing vaccine hesitancy, and identifying rumours and misinformation in order to help young people.



Description of Intervention


A set of polls and awareness messages were developed and sent out to U-Reporters nationally to understand the community’s perceptions and views about the new COVID-19 vaccine, 52,826 U-Reporters benefited from this intervention. Through the COVID-19 vaccine chatbot – An automated response platform enabled U-Reporters to interact and access key lifesaving information about the COVID-19 vaccine at any time they wish by simply texting the word “COVAX” to U-Report. A total of 53,970 U-Reporters aged between 14 – 35 years with most of them (72%) being males and 28% females were successfully reached from this initiative. Through a rapid assessment on vaccine compliance and acceptance conducted amongst U-Reporters of 18 years and above, over 29,089 U-Reporters benefited from this intervention.


The feedback received from this assessment played a key role in enabling the UNICEF Uganda and MOH communication teams to address concerns and safeguard against anti-vaccination rumors and misinformation which could have had a considerable impact on the acceptance of a COVID-19 vaccine. The data was further utilized to identify districts with higher levels of hesitancy and the Ministry of Health (MOH) adopted a regional approach, starting with the most hesitant and worst-performing districts in vaccine uptake. The comparative (district by district) assessments and use of results (best vs. worst-performing districts) enabled policymakers such as the MOH Minister to provoke district-based health teams to reflect on accountability and better performance. This led to more engagement of district leaders in the mobilization process.


Results/Lessons Learned


A one-on-one anonymous conversation with U-Reporters adds more value to their participation. The MoH call center is now equipped with a team of trained counselors responding to not only COVID-19 related concerns but also other general health-related issues arising from U-Report. Vaccine compliance and acceptance has greatly improved. This is evidenced by the recently concluded rapid assessment on vaccine compliance and acceptance poll survey which indicates that the majority (74%) of U-Reporters would go for vaccination if they are recommended to. Over 135,885 U-Reporters benefited from the RCCE initiatives including the COVID-19 vaccine chatbot information, polls, alerts and awareness messages sent out in response to the COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.



Discussions, Implications Conclusion


Considering that U-Report is predominantly SMS based and currently the gender representation is predominantly male in Uganda, an area of concern is limited participation considering Uganda’s population is over 40 million people and only 551,000 are currently registered. |There is low mobile phone coverage and low participation rates from adolescents who are the primary target of U-Report. However, with over half a million U-Reporters nationwide, the U-Report platform is best positioned to flag out serious and emerging issues within the communities across the country. The platform is fast, cost-effective, reaches many people at once, and provides opportunities for direct communication with affected people. Moving forward, UNICEF and partners have an opportunity to strengthen this tool for inclusiveness and a fair representation of the young people at different levels. This can be achieved through mobilization and recruitment of new young U-Reporters while targeting schools, churches, integration of online platforms such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook to cater for online users.

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