Vaccine analogies fail us
This is, in a way, a mea culpa.
I’ve been reporting on the COVID-19 vaccines for about a year, a task that kept me teaching how immunity boosting vaccinations work and why. The recordings are new and the immunology is complex. So, like so many others in journalism and science, I turned to analogies to make the ideas of disease prevention and public health tangible. Vaccines protect us, as I wrote, much like umbrellas, sunscreens protect us from burns and cancer, and castle guards ward off attacks.
Analogies, metaphors, parables and the like are evocative and memorable. They transform the abstract into the concrete. And you very often work, especially when used to represent a virus or infection that is almost completely invisible. But many of the ideas we associate with COVID-19 vaccines – including many that I’ve used – don’t quite hit the mark. Too many focus on the individual benefits of vaccines. And in the end they surpass one of the greatest advantages of vaccination: a plus in wellness in the Community Level by reducing the transmission and thus the disease for everyone else. In order for the vaccine to really take off, Amanda Simanek, a social epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, told me, “We all have to do it.”
Unfortunately, community benefits are harder to define, quantify, and describe than individual protection because “Americans are not used to thinking about things,” said Neil Lewis, behavioral scientist and communications expert at Cornell. That’s partly because of being collaborative risk is not characteristic of the health threats to people in rich countries are used to facing: Heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we’re drawn to individually-directed comparisons. Slipping into a pandemic-compatible, population-based mindset is a big change. In the age of COVID-19, “There was a lot of emphasis on the individual,” Lewis told me. This is pretty much at odds with “how an infection works”.
Aside from the analogy, a vaccine works like this: Each vaccination contains a harmless imitation of a pathogen that immune cells remember. Vaccines prepare the immune system so that the body won’t be taken by surprise when it really comes, Jennifer Gommerman, an immunologist at the University of Toronto, told me. After vaccination, immune cells are faster and more efficient; they can defeat viruses before a serious illness sets in. That is the great goal of vaccination. But vaccines Even reduce the number of infectious particles that leave the body to infect others. If this pattern repeats itself over and over again, the viruses run out of viable hosts, making them difficult to spread and the burden of disease. decreased Everyone. months from proof show Everyone from That is Is correct from the COVID-19 Vaccinations.
Vaccinations also work best when their limits are not constantly tested. To be fair, many analogies describe this dynamic quite well. Post-vaccination infections and illnesses depend to some extent on the physiology of the individual, just as sunscreen may not have as much stamina in a person with extremely light skin. But they’re more likely to happen in people exposed to clumps of virus, just as people who carry umbrellas are likely to still get wet in a hurricane. These events will also occur more frequently with certain viral variants, just as even well-armored castles could fall victim to a particularly powerful intruder.
However, neither sunshine nor rain nor war are truly contagious, not like a virus, and this very important dimension is where personal risk analogies increase. One person’s decision to forego a seat belt, airbag, or life jacket rarely affects another person’s fate. This language is very much in keeping with the United States’ pandemic response, which, as my colleague Ed Yong wrote, prioritized individualism, exceptionalism, and free will. We turn to individualistic analogies because they are culturally striking. But they can end up being an “extreme mismatch,” Lewis told me: Basically, public health is a collective endeavor from which no one is exempt.
I’ve seen attempts to correct course. There are many allegations on Twitter that failing to vaccinate is like drunk driving, smoking, or harming children. But these comparisons, while indicating community risk, can backfire. “We know any kind of shame doesn’t work,” said Cora Scott, director of public information and civic engagement for the city of Springfield, Missouri. Called enemies, “people turn off and stop listening,” said Lewis. Analogies like this are also misrepresented by the unvaccinated, many of whom could not access have or are still ineligible for their vaccinations or have not received accurate information about the vaccine and the severity of COVID-19.
Scott, who leads vaccines outreach in her community, told me she prefers another analogy: thinking of the spread of infection as fire and humans as the kind of kindling the flames need to keep going. I’ve tried this myself and vaccines fit in nicely too. They are flame retardant sprays that can stop fires en route while protecting vegetation from the worst of burns. The more trees are protected, the sooner the fire has nowhere to go.
Another option: thwart vermin with insecticides, as containing an infestation in one apartment reduces the chances of them moving into the next door. Michael DL Johnson, an immunologist at the University of Arizona, provides an illustrative Alternative – installing a toilet rather than putting the bowel movements in a bucket “and smearing it all over your front yard” which would make the neighbors very unhappy and potentially seriously ill.
It’s not really about approaching the perfect vaccine analogy. I’m not sure if one exists; Not a single comparison can express all of the questions, worries, and enthusiasm about vaccination. Analogies can also falter against fear and distrust. Lots of the people waiting to get their shots are there concerned about the dangers the vaccines could pose to them as individuals. Here, experts bring in other outreach and communication strategies, including answering individual questions, breaking down barriers to entry, sharing stories from a community, and tapping into local leaders as trusted sources. Johnson has also worked to equip friends, colleagues, and family members with the skills to identify and prevent misinformation. “I want you to be able to check the science for yourself,” he told me.
Perhaps the ideal analogy remains elusive for another reason: nothing real is just like a vaccine. Vaccines use the body’s natural ability to fight off pathogens and stop the symptoms of serious illness. They make bodies inhospitable to infectious threats by assisting the immune system’s internal tactics. You can accomplish this easily, often with just one or two short injections teaching immune cells the nature of a particular threat, and sometimes providing long-lasting protection Lifetime. They do all of this without exposing anyone to an actual virus and reducing the chances of someone else being exposed. At the individual level, vaccines “make the immune system intelligent,” Gommerman told me. At the population level, they allow safe coexistence with a virus.
Most people don’t need to think about the many vaccinations they received as children because those vaccinations successfully tamed a threat. When vaccines work, people don’t notice them anymore. And that makes vaccines, frankly, better than any fire retardant, umbrella, sunscreen, airbag, seat belt, insecticide, or military weapon I can think of. All visual comparisons fall short in a way, because vaccines are literally one of the best protective agents we have ever invented.
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