Dr. Akusa Patrice Mawa, the Principal Investigator of ‘The Vaccines and Leadership project (VaxLead) funded by IMPRINT (IMmmunising PRegnant women and INfants neTwork), is a medical scientist with interest in immunology of neglected infectious diseases and immune responses to vaccines. His overall goal is to become a high-level researcher with the ability to identify research problems, undertake independent world-class research, and to become a leader in health research in Africa. He aims to gain the ability to compete at international level for funding, which will build scientific capacity, not just in health research but also in government, by influencing policy and practice decision through expert knowledge and cutting-edge research.
About the VaxLead project
Maternal immunization provides a safe and effective strategy to protect mothers and their newborns. However, few pregnant women in developing countries like Uganda, have access to adequate pregnancy care, including maternal immunization and maternal and neonatal vaccine uptake is variable and below desired target in these settings.
The VaxLead project aims to establish a pool of school-going adolescent girls and boys as ‘immunisation ambassadors’ and change agents able to engage and empower mothers and community members in maternal immunisation and link them to immunisation services.
Up to 500 students aged 15-19 years from secondary schools in Entebbe, Uganda are being trained on maternal immunisation, leadership and communication skills. Community engagement and effective communication are important for the success of vaccination programs. Through the involvement of opinion leaders and trusted voices, there will be improvement of maternal and neonatal immunisation services awareness. Hence, better understanding of the services and involvement of diverse stakeholders in decision making.
Why should people care about the VaxLead Project?
One of the barriers to vaccine uptake by pregnant women is perceived safety concerns. This is a concern in an era where vaccine hesitancy is on the rise. The benefits of maternal immunisation may therefore not be achieved unless mothers and the communities they live in are adequately engaged, empowered and linked to the immunization services. This project aims to address this.
What are the big challenges in your research area?
Immunization saves millions of lives and is widely recognized as one of the world’s most successful and cost-effective public health intervention. However, vaccine hesitancy that is defined as the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the accessibility of vaccines is on the rise and has become an important impediment to the success of vaccination programs. In 2019, the World Health Organisation declared vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten threats to global health.
Reasons for vaccine hesitancy are complex, although the key causes have been identified as lack of confidence, complacency and inconvenience. Perceived vaccine safety concerns and confidence in the importance of vaccines have been shown to be strongly associated with vaccine uptake. Common vaccine safety controversies, misinformation and disinformation abound. There is a high demand for information on vaccines and a short supply of credible sources, thus communities turn to filling the void with conspiracy theories and misinformation. To improve vaccine uptake, we therefore need to address the factors that drive negative vaccine concerns and to understand what fosters vaccine acceptance or the intention to vaccinate.
How will this project help you achieve your long term career plans?
In the long term, Dr. Mawa aims to take a lead in the national and international debate on vaccines and policy. This project will help in developing his practice in public engagement related to vaccines. The project will also help to foster community support for future vaccine-related studies.
It is hoped that the students will apply the knowledge acquired from this project to their biology lessons, and that the project will attract young minds into careers in health research and research support, thus contributing to building a critical mass of scientists and research support staff in Africa.
What do you hope to achieve at the end of the project?
At the end of the project, we would have established a pool of school-going adolescent girls and boys as ‘immunisation ambassadors’ and change agents able to engage and empower mothers and community members in maternal immunisation and link them to maternal and neonatal immunisation services.
By providing practical information and linking mothers and communities to maternal and neonatal immunisation services, this project will result in saving lives by reducing maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality, hence contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goal target of ending preventable deaths of newborns and children under five years of age by 2030.
The results of the project will be used to apply for further funding to expand the project to include more schools in Entebbe and other parts of Uganda. It is hoped that a support towards strengthening Science Clubs in schools in Entebbe will be put in place to interest students into careers in health research. A deliberate effort to initiate Vaccine Clubs in schools in Uganda will go a long way in creating a generation that is vaccine-literate. This will help address vaccine hesitancy and other vaccine-related challenges in the country.