Science Communication

Getting the shots

A real-life science communication story
Hannah Alexander
By Hannah Alexander
Aug. 25, 2021

I recently took a Lyft ride in Chicago. The driver was a woman in her late 50s. We chatted during the entire ride. I learned that she is a mother of three sons and a grandmother.

She has been driving throughout the entire pandemic, and, because she had to spend time in close proximity to so many people, I assumed she had been vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as she possibly could. She had not. She said her three adult sons were not vaccinated either.

Driver-445x297.jpg

She told me she was still hesitant and fearful. I told her the data show that vaccination is safe, that getting the disease is a lot more dangerous and has much worse consequences than the vaccine. I told her that my work used to be immunization related, so I know that it is the right thing to do. And so on and so on.

She kept saying, “You make good points,” but she also said that she’s not sure what happens when a person gets the vaccine. I said nothing bad happens; at most, you might feel bad for a day or two, just like when little babies get vaccinated.

She: “What? They give it to babies too?”
Me: “No, not yet. I meant when babies get vaccinated against childhood diseases.”
She: “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Me: “You know, when you take babies to the doctor for the two-, four- and six-month visit, and they get vaccinated?”
She: “Oh! You mean when they get shots.”

And just like that it all became clear and incredibly sad to me. I realized two things: First, she does not understand the word vaccination (let alone immunization). She knows “shots.” But the people who try to convince her to get vaccinated do not use the word she knows (including me, throughout our entire conversation, even though I have 13 years of experience in practicing science communication). So having a story on the news that uses words such as efficacy, variants, mutation and virulence does not help much. It might be making things worse. Second — and more disconcerting — she clearly does not understand what happens when babies “get shots.”

Where do we go from here? I am not sure. We scientists think that the vaccine and its mechanism of action have been explained a million times to everyone. But, at least in this case, it’s been explained in a language some people do not understand.

So here’s my message.

To science communication and outreach practitioners: Our message can never be too simple when we reach out to the lay public. We need to avoid using professional terms (yes, even vaccination and immunization fall into this category). We need to be aware of the public’s frustration at seemingly contradicting messages — wear a mask, don’t wear a mask; the vaccine will protect you, the vaccine won’t protect you 100% — and patiently explain that the virus is new to the landscape, that scientists are figuring it out as we go along, and, as such, with new information, guidelines may change. We need to realize that, yes, for some the resistance to vaccination is out of spite or politically motivated, but for many it is out of real fear, primarily as the result of lack of understanding and lack of correct information.

To pediatricians and family doctors: Please take a minute to explain what is happening when you vaccinate — “give shots to” — babies and small children.

To high school science teachers: Please tackle the issue of immunization in your science classes; seek ways to explain in simple terms what the process is and what the ramifications are. You have a unique conduit into people’s homes.

Most importantly, to our country’s leaders who are battling COVID 19 — the government, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the medical personnel, and the scientific community at large: Please simplify your message. Explain in a few very simple words what happens when a person gets vaccinated and what happens when a person doesn’t, and please call it “getting shots.”

Hannah Alexander
Hannah Alexander

Hannah Alexander is a research associate professor emerita of biological sciences at the University of Missouri. She served six years on the ASBMB Science Outreach and Communication Committee and recently mentored her 14th group in the ASBMB’s Art of Science Communication course.

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