Dr Shimna Azeez, a medical officer at Manjeri Medical College in Malappuram, stood before hundreds of parents at a school in the district in the first week of November.
Although the school was a new place for her, Dr Shimna was doing something she had done many times - provide awareness on the importance of Measles-Rubella vaccination.
After an hour’s class where she provided information and dispelled myths around vaccination, she was met with a strange challenge. The father of a child, who was seated in the audience, suddenly stood up and challenged Dr Shimna to take the injection herself. And she did.
In October, the Kerala government started an extensive MR vaccination drive to combat the two diseases, which mostly affects children. The turnout for these vaccination campaigns, however, was low. Kerala didn’t just have to eradicate the two diseases, but also the growing campaigns against vaccination.
Speaking to TNM, Dr Shimna elaborated on how she was challenged to take the injection herself and how that one episode, in fact, convinced several parents to get their children vaccinated.
"There were close to 300 parents who were listening to my class. This school was located in an area where there was high resistance to vaccination. The discussion was going smoothly for about an hour and a half, where parents were voicing their concerns. Some asked why we were only giving vaccination to children below the age of 15. In that context, I was explaining to them that MR generally affects children more than adults and happened to mention that although I had taken Measles vaccination as a child, I hadn't got a Rubella vaccination done. I told them that although I wanted to do it, I hadn't done so yet," Dr Shimna remembers.
In no time, the father of a child stood up and challenged Dr Shimna to take the injection in front of the parents.
"He challenged me saying that I am asking them to get their children vaccinated, without taking the Rubella vaccine myself. And there, I took the injection. While that one gesture was enough to convince several hundred parents to get their children vaccinated, that one parent did not budge," she says.
She had no clue that the episode will help send across a powerful message at the time of taking it up, she says. With local media outlets reporting on the incident, Shimna's action got more visibility and changed more minds.
Ever since the government rolled out the MR vaccination drive, the anti-vaccination campaigns have also been growing louder. There was resistance from people in the Malappuram and Kozhikode regions which came in the way of the state's aim to eradicate MR.
The anti-science campaigns
The resistance towards vaccination or modern medicine, per se, is not a new phenomenon, Dr Shimna points out.
From naturopathy practitioners to some homoeopathy doctors to certain religious groups, anti-science campaigns have always posed a challenge in the health sector. These campaigns are mostly online, and reach more and more people every minute.
"The main means by which they propagated the idea was through WhatsApp and Facebook. Videos are made discouraging people to not take modern medicine. Then, of course, there is word of mouth communication. For instance, in Malappuram, people would trust their neighbour more than they trust science. And so, convincing the layman was the key," she says.
Social media to tackle
Social media was flooded with the messages that people against vaccination wanted to spread, with not enough information countering it. This was a starting point for Infoclinic, a Facebook page run by a team of doctors across Kerala.
The page publishes articles and posts which educate people about modern medicine and dispels misconceptions propagated by the anti-science campaigners.
"Remove a thorn with another thorn, they say. So we used the same means that anti-science campaigners use, just that we used it to spread the right information. There was a huge gap on social media, with regard to discussion on science and scientific temper. The reason why people were convinced of anti-vaccination campaigns was because they don't have the right facts to counter these campaigns. So we gave them that," she says.
Launched in October 2016, Infoclinic is now followed by more than 47,000 users. Through articles and livestreams on Facebook, Dr Shimna says that they try to dispel myths about modern medicine.
"The purpose of starting Infoclinic was to reach out to the people much before the anti-science campaigners did so that they would have the right information to counter these campaigns," she adds.
Managed by five admins who are doctors from different districts, Infoclinic is a collective of 26 doctors.
Recently, Infoclinic bagged the Indian Medical Association (IMA)'s social media award for their work. In the days to come, the group of doctors hope to launch a website.