In March 2022, COG-Train, in collaboration with the Malawi Liverpool Wellcome Programme and the Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences, initiated the “Viral Variant Conversations – Improving the understanding of SARS-CoV-2 variants in Malawi” public engagement project. The goal of the project was to increase community understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, its mutations, variant waves, and vaccine development, dispel myths, and increase vaccine uptake in Malawi. The project also aimed to translate this understanding to other prevalent pathogens in the region.
The project included a training course in communicating scientific and health information, particularly about SARS-CoV-2 variants, for health professionals across the three main regions in the country. The first round of training took place in September 2022 in the southern region (Blantyre), the second in October 2022 was in the northern region (Mzuzu), and the third in November 2022 was in the central region (Lilongwe). All three regional training sessions received positive feedback and were facilitated by two communication experts from each of the Malawian institutions involved. In total, about 40 health officials received training.
The second deliverable of the project was to create a series of radio programmes on national and community radio stations to educate local communities about the SARS-CoV-2 virus and wider topics, such as vaccines and virus mutations. Six episodes of a radio programme called ‘Tidziwe za ma Virus’ (Let us Know About Viruses) were delivered in five radio stations, with episodes also being aired multiple times. Each episode of the radio programme was divided into three ten-minute segments covering expert discussion, community questions, and dramatization. The topics covered in the programmes included an introduction to virology, mutations, COVID vaccines and their development, types of COVID vaccines and how they work, COVID waves, ending with a summary and review of the series. The community radio programmes were delivered across the country in the primary language of Chichewa.
To further support vaccine uptake for various pathogens in Malawi, the project team contributed to the launch of a comic book focusing on vaccines and vaccine uptake, entitled “One for All, All for One”. The book is available in English and three local languages, Chichewa, Yao and Tumbuka.
The Viral Variant Conversations project has successfully delivered on its training aim to increase community understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and support vaccine acceptance within the public, according to the evaluation conducted. The expert local insights of the project team on the ground in Malawi (particularly the community engagement officers Lindiwe Mafuleka and Pauline Hellen Mlogeni) ensured that the training was targeted to local audiences. This project further reinforces the COG-Train ethos of working with local in-country experts to achieve the best results. COG-Train thanks the production teams and additional scientific experts who also contributed their valuable time and knowledge to the project.