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Illustrated portraits of Varsha Venugopal and Fiona Conlon. Lauren Tamaki for Vox

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Varsha Venugopal and Fiona Conlon are using gossip to save lives

The pair’s nonprofit, Suvita, is boosting child vaccination rates in India.

Sigal Samuel is a senior reporter for Vox’s Future Perfect and co-host of the Future Perfect podcast. She writes primarily about the future of consciousness, tracking advances in artificial intelligence and neuroscience and their staggering ethical implications. Before joining Vox, Sigal was the religion editor at the Atlantic.

Every single minute, one child dies from a disease that could have been prevented by a vaccine. And half of the world’s under-vaccinated kids are located in one country: India.

Global development expert Varsha Venugopal, who grew up there, wanted to do something about that. She joined an incubation program for fledgling charities and met a kindred spirit named Fiona Conlon, who wanted to tackle similar problems. Both women had held very stable jobs before — Venugopal at the World Bank and George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, Conlon at the World Health Organization — but they were ready to take a leap into the unknown to try and make a big impact.

So they co-founded Suvita, a nonprofit that works to improve vaccination rates in India. Venugopal had already put down roots in the UK and couldn’t move back to India, but Conlon was happy to pack up and move to Pune, near Mumbai. In 2019, the pair was ready to launch.

Suvita boosts uptake of immunizations in two ways. The first is a simple nudge: sending text messages to parents to remind them when it’s time to bring their kids in for shots. But the second is a bit more unexpected: gossip.

The idea here is that every community has a few people — the influencers, the yentas — who are especially great at getting the word out about things. By asking a bunch of households in a community, “If there was a fair in town, who is most likely to tell you about it?” you can find out who the top gossips are. Then you can recruit them to get the word out about your cause — in this case, vaccination.

Suvita got this idea from a study by the Poverty Action Lab, where researchers — including Nobel Prize-winning economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo — compared three different ways of communicating information about vaccines to find out which works best: cash incentives sent directly to parents, SMS messages, and gossip. It turned out that an SMS-and-gossip combo was the most cost-effective, increasing the number of kids going to government-run vaccination sites by 25 percent.

That makes sense given that, in India, kids go unvaccinated not because of a supply-side problem — the country is actually a major producer of vaccines — but because of a demand-side problem. For rural parents with limited education, it can be hard to access or understand information about the importance of immunizations, so they aren’t always motivated to bring in their kids for multiple rounds of shots.

To change that, it turns out, gossip is golden. So far, Suvita has reached hundreds of thousands of parents. It’s operating in seven states in India. And Venugopal and Conlon are dreaming even bigger: The long-term goal is to scale up across the whole country and collaborate with the government to make sure no child misses out on getting their vaccines.

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