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Why In News?

  • The Union Health Minister has recently asserted that lockdowns and social distancing are the most effective “social vaccines” available to fight the pandemic (Covid-19).

What Is A Social Vaccine? 

  • A social vaccine is a metaphor for a series of social and behavioural measures that governments can use to raise public consciousness about unhealthy situations through social mobilisation
  • It addresses barriers and facilitators of behaviour change, whether attitudinal, social, cultural, or economic.
  • Social Vaccine supplements information, education, and communication (IEC) with targeted social and behaviour change communication (SBCC) strategies.

Effectiveness Of A Social Vaccine During Pandemic

  • When applied to pandemics, the effectiveness of a social vaccine is determined by the extent of dissemination and uptake of accurate information about personal infection risk and methods to reduce the risk.
  • Uganda and Thailand used SBCC strategies effectively during the HIV/AIDS pandemic to bring down the incidence of HIV infection, before Highly Active Antiretroviral Treatment (HAART) was introduced in 1995.
  • These countries demonstrated how an effective social vaccine helped “flatten the curve” till effective treatments were discovered that dramatically reduced mortality, viral loads and infection transmission.

Lessons from HIV (Human immunodeficiency virus) Pandemic

  • HIV that causes AIDS is believed to have made the zoonotic jump from monkeys through chimpanzees to humans in Africa as early as the 1920s
  • However, the HIV/AIDS epidemic was detected in 1981 & was a pandemic by 1985.
  • Extent of Pandemic: From 1981 to 2018, around 74.9 million people worldwide were HIV-infected, and around 32.0 million died from AIDS-related illnesses.
  • Social vaccine helped “flatten the curve” till effective treatments were discovered that dramatically reduced mortality, viral loads and infection transmission.

How Social Vaccine was used in HIV/AIDS pandemic?

  • There were widespread information campaigns stating that infection occurred predominantly through sexual transmission and intravenous drug use.
  • IEC and SBCC activities targeted (and partnered) individuals, community networks, leaders, social & health systems to change attitudes and behaviours.
  • The core preventive messages involved
  • Being faithful to one sexual partner
  • 100% condom use during sexual intercourse outside stable relationships
  • Resisting peer-pressure for risky behaviours like intravenous drug use
  • Religious and community leaders were key change agents
  • For example, the Catholic Church in Uganda did not initially support promoting condoms since its use prevents life.
  • However, later they acknowledged that their religion did not preclude the use of condoms to prevent deaths – which was an important turning point

Social Vaccine amidst Covid-19

  • The skills and experiences from controlling HIV/AIDS pandemic can be innovatively adapted for the current pandemic.
  • Use of IEC and SBCC strategies:
    • Maintaining physical distancing in social situations and wearing cloth masks or facial coverings in public by 100% of people is key to preventing infection along with regular disinfection of oneself and one’s surroundings.
    • People are more likely to practise these behaviours if all leaders (without exception) promote them publicly and consistently, the whole community believes in their importance, and if proper information, support, and materials are available and accessible.
    • Building trust is key if government-imposed mitigation strategies are to be embraced by the population.

Challenges Ahead

  • The components of the social vaccine should be in place before relaxing or lifting the lockdown.
  • A social vaccine also requires people to hold leaders accountable to
    • Invest in rapidly scaling-up testing
    • Meet the basic and economic needs of vulnerable sections
    • Providing psychological support where needed
    • Not communalising or politicising the pandemic
    • Not compromising the privacy and dignity of infected individuals and their families in the interest of public health


  • There is still no biomedical vaccine for HIV/AIDS. Considering the limited efficacy and uptake of influenza vaccines, vaccines for SARS-CoV-2/Covid-19 may not provide a panacea.
  • Effective treatments to reduce deaths with Covid-19 may emerge, but till then, and even afterwards, a social vaccine is needed.
  • A social vaccine can build societal immunity to the devastating effects of future pandemics by the lessons learned about addressing the root causes, and our responses to the current one.



Mussoorie Times

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