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How to discuss vaccines for COVID-19 with the public

This briefing is for immunologists who would like to engage with the public around the topic of vaccines for COVID-19. The aim of these tips is to encourage immunologists to have the confidence to talk about vaccines for COVID-19 with a wide range of audiences in a context of public engagement e.g. during a science festival related activity, online engagement on social media, talking to family and friends, sharing information with communities.


Top tips

  • Listen to concerns, acknowledge the concerns and where possible find common ground (e.g. yes, we all want this pandemic to be over). Try to relate to the person as much as possible, be empathetic. If comfortable and appropriate, share your own experience or concerns.

  • It’s likely that people will ask you directly if you will get the vaccine, be ready to discuss your personal thoughts. Be honest and personable, state clearly your reasons and motives.

  • Don’t take anything personally and avoid being confrontational. Don’t make assumptions. It’s natural for people to have questions and concerns and everyone has different levels of knowledge.
     
  • Acknowledge known side effects of vaccines but remind the public of the overwhelming benefit of preventing serious diseases by vaccinations. Most of the side effects of vaccination are mild and do not last long. Talk about how the world eradicated smallpox (and almost polio) through mass vaccination. Read our BSI statement to mark 40 years since smallpox eradication.
     
  • Acknowledge that there are still some things we are yet to learn about the vaccines. For example, we can’t yet know how long immunity might last or if the vaccine prevents you from passing the virus on to others. Be open about these unknowns but reassuring that clinical trials and monitoring are ongoing. Reiterate the continued need for other measures to stop the spread of the virus e.g. hand hygiene and social distancing.
     
  • Be prepared to have more general conversations about how vaccines work and immunity. Use BSI Celebrate Vaccines resources as a tool to discuss vaccines in general.
     
  • Many questions may be around policy on vaccine development, approval, manufacture or distribution. Do your research - look at what’s in the media and headlines to understand what types of questions may come up. Read and familiarise yourself with the BSI position statements by reading our latest press releases, including the BSI response to approval of Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine use in UK and BSI response to launch of rollout for COVID-19 vaccine on NHS. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. The worst thing to do would be to give the wrong information. If you don’t know, be honest and point in the direction of appropriate resources.
     
  • Don’t overload with facts. Avoid using jargon and keep your language plain and accessible. Facts can be easily forgotten but if you tell a simple and clear story with distinctive details, this can be more memorable.
     
  • You are not there to give medical advice. Unless you are clinically trained, you should not attempt to answer clinical questions and should make it clear that you are not a medical doctor. You are there to give reliable information with as much relevance to the immune system as possible. Any questions asking for clinical advice should be acknowledged and pointed in the direction of appropriate resources. If anyone brings up any particular medical issues, you can suggest that they visit their GP.
     
  • If you find yourself in a conversation about anti-vax sentiment, ask them why they think ‘X’? Where did they hear this? What would make them change their mind or what evidence would convince them? Acknowledge what they have told you and communicate what you know or provide appropriate resources. It’s OK to end the conversation if you feel uncomfortable but always be polite.
     
  • Be genuine. The public will get to see that scientists are just human, and they will feel empowered with their new knowledge. This will all contribute to improved public health.
     

Resources

British Society for Immunology - Webinar: COVID-19 vaccine conversations: effective ways of engaging with the public

British Society for Immunology – Celebrate Vaccines public engagement resources

British Society for Immunology – Coronavirus public engagement resources

British Society for Immunology – Press releases

World Health Organisation Q&A – Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Vaccines

World Health Organisation Q&A – Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Vaccine research and development

World Health Organisation Q&A - Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Vaccine access and allocation

NHS website – Coronavirus vaccine

NHS website - Why vaccination is safe and important

University of Oxford - Vaccine Knowledge Project

The Vaccine Confidence Project

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – COVID-19 vaccine tracker

BBC News – Coronavirus pandemic

Science Media Centre – COVID-19 rapid reactions from experts