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Vaccine engagement starts…from personal experience and self-confidence

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, Professor Ann Ager is a Professor of Cellular Immunity and Immunotherapy at Cardiff University and the Chair of the BSI Forum. She has been playing her part in addressing some of the myths around COVID-19 vaccines by informing healthcare workers and the public. Here, Ann considers why she wants to share her immunology knowledge, goes through detailed strategies to prepare your own presentation, and emphasises the importance of feeling confident.


 

My husband got infected with SARS-CoV-2 at a time when vaccines for COVID-19 were only being dreamed of. He has been suffering from long COVID since then. But now, a year later, we have more than one vaccine to protect us against this disease and it’s important for me to share my understanding of immunology to help vaccine take-up.

I was asked to discuss how COVID-19 vaccines work at an evening event organised by the Ethnic Minority Women in Welsh Healthcare and the Learned Society for Wales, as part of a series to inform healthcare workers and the public. It was something I really wanted to do, and I enjoyed preparing the presentation and putting the graphics together. Here is how I approached it:

  • I compared COVID-19 to preventable diseases that used to pose a serious danger to our health. For example, showcasing what measles looked like in the pre-MMR era.
  • When explaining how immunity builds up, I described three steps to immunity: step one happens in the arm, step two is in the lymph nodes of the armpit and step three is the whole body.
  • I spoke about my own experience getting the jab. Sharing your personal experience is always a good point of connection!
  • I used simple graphics and took the time to repeat key messages. The BSI has some excellent graphics on concepts like herd immunity.
  • I went back to basics. It’s important to highlight the fact that not everything online is true and that we should always check who’s talking – are they an expert? What is the source?

They were an informed audience and a lot of important questions came up. I know scientists who want to speak out about vaccination can be apprehensive about the Q&A section – there’s always a fear of not being prepared to answer difficult questions that you can’t anticipate. My advice would be to stop and think about it, be honest if it’s not your area of expertise or there’s not enough data right now and acknowledge their frustrations and concerns. Come from a point of understanding but don’t allow yourself to be taken out of your comfort zone!

As immunologists, we have the academic background to think logically about complex problems and use our knowledge of immune responses in preclinical and clinical models to address most concerns. I had excellent feedback from the attendees, particularly some of the nurses who found the graphics helpful and really enjoyed the webinar. You can watch the recording here.

I feel that these conversations are extremely important. My message to other BSI members would be to make sure that you feel confident. Start by thinking about what you have to offer i.e. getting a certain message across, using your communication expertise and other transferable skills, or making the most of links you have with different communities. And then, give it a go with a rehearsal – you can come up with a few slides and try presenting  to someone without a scientific background such as friends and family.

Last year, my husband and a lot of people all around the world, would have given anything to have a licensed drug to give them immunity to COVID-19 without being sick. That’s exactly what the vaccines offer us. Now, with more and more people getting vaccinated each day, we can all work together to protect those around us.


Follow Ann on Twitter @DrAnnAger

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.