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Engaging with the public about vaccines

Older man receiving vaccineWith the emergence of COVID-19, the crucial role that vaccines play in protecting our health has come into sharp focus. During the pandemic hope comes in the form of a vaccine and immunologists around the world are working to develop safe and effective vaccines that will protect us against infection by SARS-CoV-2. It’s important to understand and address vaccine concerns that are prominent in public discussion and may lead to hesitancy to vaccination. By answering common vaccine immunology questions, we hope to provide evidence-based information to help everyone make informed decisions about vaccines and their health.

Communicating digitally

We recognise that many of our members are looking for resources to use in their own public engagement or simply to explain a concept to family and friends. The BSI has been developing a series of digital materials to strengthen public understanding around vaccines, which are free to access and suitable for all audiences. We encourage you to download, share, post and continue the open conversation.

A topic high on the media and public agenda is how vaccines can generate long-term immunity and how an effective COVID-19 vaccine might work. Our informative infographic explains how vaccines take advantage of the natural process of adaptive immunity and what this might mean for COVID-19 vaccine development. BSI member, Dayana Hristova, also worked with us to produce a video explaining that vaccines are the safest way to gain long-term immunity against a virus that your body has yet to encounter.

A vaccine concern that comes up time and again is about what’s in a vaccine. We’ve produced a detailed blog, with the help of BSI member Dr Beth Holder, to explain the different ingredients found in vaccines and created an easy-to-digest infographic alongside. It’s crucial to explore the role of each vaccine ingredient to understand that, in the very small amounts used, they are safe and necessary to ensure a vaccine’s high quality.

Listening to concerns

Woman asking vaccine questionsAs well as sharing reliable information, it’s important to engage directly with the public and listen to vaccine concerns. It’s essential that we don’t assume to understand and know every question the public has about vaccines for COVID-19, so we are proactively listening and aiming to transparently answer those direct questions.

We took public COVID-19 vaccine questions on our Instagram channel and put them to BSI member, Dr Megan MacLeod. In the Q&A video, Megan answers vaccine concerns and explores the details of when a vaccine for COVID-19 may become available, who will receive the potential vaccines, how herd immunity can protect us and lots more. The video can be shared directly from our YouTube channel. We’ll be repeating this public Q&A format again, so do keep an eye out on our social media channels.

Connecting with students and families

Additionally, the BSI is working hard to engage with the public on vaccines in other ways. We’ve proudly continued our Celebrate Vaccines campaign to champion the critical role of vaccination and vaccine research. We encourage BSI members to use and share these materials for engaging with the public about how vaccines work and why they’re important. We’ve been disseminating our resources and educational materials through participating in online science festivals and shows. This includes the Virtual Lambeth Country Show, the Dr Jenner’s House Museum’s Discovery at Home festival and the Royal Society of Biology’s Science at Home virtual festival. Our South Wales Group delivered a live interactive session at the Swansea Science Festival online via Zoom! They talked all about the immune system and vaccines and answered plenty of questions from a lively audience.

We helped students in UK schools to connect with scientists online through I’m a Scientist, a platform that allows students to live-chat with scientists and ask questions directly. We supported the Health Zone, which took place during November, and focused on scientists whose work relates to human health. Our funding ensured that young people were able to chat with immunologists working on vaccines. We’d like to thank all fifteen BSI members who participated from a broad range of career stages – from PhD students to senior lecturers, from the public sector and in industry. We connected with over 1,500 students and their families, answering vaccine related questions and strengthening understanding about immunology.

Looking to the future, the BSI will be joining the 2021 British Science Week, organised by the British Science Association, by sharing a hands-on activity in their activity pack. The pack is for primary school students and will be launched in January 2021, exploring the theme of ‘Innovating for the future’. Student can explore herd immunity and how vaccines have changed our world by stopping the spread of deadly diseases and improving global health. The activity pack for primary schools is, on average, downloaded over 55,000 times and will be widely promoted to schools across the country.


Engaging with the media and decision makers

Understanding how vaccines work and why they’re important, particularly in relation to potential COVID-19 vaccines, is now of critical importance. As well as our public work, we work hard to engage with journalists to ensure accurate information about vaccines in the media, responding to news stories through press releases. Our policy team is also engaging with Government, Parliament and appropriate public bodies with our Immunology and COVID-19 taskforce to ensure that immunology expertise is fed into decision-making and that we do all we can to listen and respond to the public’s questions around vaccination.

If our members discover other innovative and impactful ways that the BSI can be engaging with the public about vaccines, we’d love to hear about it. If you’re interested in getting involved with our public engagement work, do let us know because we’re always looking for members to help bring the expert immunology voice. Please get in touch with our Public Engagement Manager, Erika Aquino, with your ideas and suggestions.

Dr Erika Aquino

Public Engagement Manager, British Society for Immunology