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Vaccine engagement starts…by engaging with your local community

We're proud to showcase this case study in our 'Vaccine engagement starts...' series, part of our wider public engagement campaign. Our hope is that, through highlighting a range of the wonderful and impactful activities our members have been carrying out, others will be inspired to begin engaging with the public on vaccines.

BSI member, Dr Donald Palmer is an Associate Professor of Immunology at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London and the BSI Education & Careers Secretary. He has been speaking to diverse communities about how the immune system works and why we need vaccinations. Here, Donald shares his thoughts on the importance of community engagement, how to go about it and why every immunologist’s voice matters.

You have been working on various initiatives to increase the public’s knowledge about the immune system and vaccination. What public engagement have you done so far and how have you approached it?

I’ve presented at several community meetings to raise awareness around vaccination and provide reliable information, in particular with Brent Council's Health Inequalities Team but also for Harrow Council and a couple of events involving faith groups.

There is a general need for accurate information about COVID-19 vaccines and people want to know more so they can make an informed choice. It’s not necessarily vaccine hesitancy but just a matter of being unsure and having questions they’d like answered by experts. My presentations aren’t about endorsing vaccines but rather general talks about how the immune system works and why we need vaccinations.

You’ve spoken to diverse communities in a range of settings. Do you have any advice on how to effectively communicate complex concepts to different audiences?

The key is to keep it short and simple. I usually prepare a 10-15 minute presentation with extra slides that I keep for questions that might come up. For example, one of the most asked questions is around how the vaccines were developed so quickly so I have a slide ready with the graphic from the new BSI guide. Where possible, I also include reference links so that people can follow up if they want to.

I feel that there has been a gap of public information and, sadly, that vacuum has been taken up by a lot of misinformation. Particularly amongst the BAME community where there is also less trust with ‘authorities’ and overall, most would agree they have legitimate concerns. So it’s important to really listen to these questions and hear their worries in an open discussion with trusted voices within those communities. As part of the community in Brent, I have been taking part in those conversations together with BAME doctors to provide a safe forum for people to ask their questions.

You have also recently taken your first steps into the virtual engagement sphere with a Q&A from the BSI’s Instagram channel. What was your motivation to do this?

Using this platform was a way of potentially getting to a different younger audience. We also need to be messaging younger people so that they have the correct knowledge and they can make an informed choice. Not to mention they can share that information and help inform their older relatives. It was the first time I’ve been on Instagram, but the experience has been very rewarding!

As an immunologist, why do you think it’s important to speak out about COVID-19 vaccines?

For the immunology community, this is a chance for us to give back. We all do this as human beings in one way or another but, for me, it’s a way of really giving back to society.

People are asking pertinent questions about vaccinations and, as immunologists, we’re the ones looking at the role of the immune system and how we can boost immunity with the vaccine. I’ve been on public panels with GPs and the experience of working together has been great – doctors can talk about the clinical side, such as answering queries about underlying health conditions, but when there are questions about the immune system, someone always says “ask the immunologist”. 

What would you say to other BSI members and immunologists who might be apprehensive about speaking to the public about vaccination?

My fellow immunologists shouldn’t feel intimidated. I know it can be scary but sometimes the biggest hurdle can be finding the material to use. I think the vaccine guide and other infographics from the British Society for Immunology are an excellent starting point we can all use in our vaccine conversations.

My final thought is that these interactions with the public need to happen on a regular basis and come from as many BSI members as possible. We all communicate differently, we have different accents and different personalities, and this will help us reach a variety of people around the UK. By continually having this conversation, the message is more likely to get through to people who have questions.

Find out more about Donald here and watch his Q&A video about COVID-19 vaccines. You can also explore some of the webinars and content to which Donald has contributed:

Are you a BSI member involved in public engagement around COVID-19 vaccines? We'd love to hear from you! Please get in touch with our Marketing & Communications Manager, Teresa Prados, to share your experience as part of our new case study series 'Vaccine engagement starts...'.

Click here to find out more about the BSI's public engagement campaign Vaccine engagement starts at home. We’re always looking for members to help bring the expert immunology voice so if you'd like to get involved with our public engagement work, don't hesitate to contact our Public Engagement Manager, Erika Aquino.