Impactful SciComm: Vaccine Communications

By Sheeva Azma

In spring 2021, when COVID-19 vaccines were newly available in the US, I was interviewed by a local journalism outlet about vaccine hesitancy. I asked the reporter for the questions in advance, and typed up my answers to them before the interview. While my interview never made it to print, I am including the answers here for anyone interested in my take on health, and specifically, vaccine communications. How would you answer these questions? Feel free to chime in below in the comments.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

What’s your guidance for someone who wants to convince a loved one to get vaccinated? 

It’s important to empower loved ones with information rather than pushing them to get a vaccine. Ask your loved one about their concerns about the vaccine and answer their questions. Nobody likes to be forced into doing something they don’t understand. Make sure to deal with pushback, too. Some people can be really stubborn, but it’s often due to the fear of the unknown. I found that answering my loved ones’ tough questions about the COVID-19 vaccine helped them overcome their vaccine hesitancy.

What are some good strategies to have that conversation?

Try to approach the conversation from a place of common ground. Focus on shared values like staying healthy and being able to resume a normal post-pandemic life again. Remind your loved one that you care about them and want to spend many more years with them after the COVID pandemic is over.

What are pitfalls to avoid when trying to have that conversation?

Don’t label your loved ones as anti-science for their reluctance to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Instead, help them understand why it’s important to get vaccinated. They may have heard bits and pieces of information about the vaccine from the news (such as reports of adverse effects) and might not have the full story. Address their concerns.

Realize you can’t convince people to do what you want them to do, but you can help them be more informed about the benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Also, don’t talk down to your loved ones. Nobody likes to feel stupid.

Finally, don’t give up. You’re having this conversation for their benefit and for the benefit of others around them. Don’t be discouraged if your well-thought-out explanation doesn’t immediately convince your loved ones. Persistence goes a long way in these discussions. It might feel like an uphill battle until something finally clicks in their mind.

How can people balance the fear of the unknown with a vaccine with the fear of the unknown with COVID?

Understanding the way the vaccines work helps a lot. Take the time to learn about the different vaccines available and how they work. I learned about how the COVID-19 vaccines work early on, publishing a series of explainers on the COVID vaccines on the Fancy Comma blog with my colleague, Nidhi Parekh.

It also helps to frame the discussion in terms of relative risk: the risk of getting COVID, versus the unknown, but verifiably low risk of having negative effects from the COVID vaccine.

The side effects from the COVID vaccines are much less severe than the symptoms of COVID, which is a disease we don’t fully understand yet.

The long-term effects of the COVID vaccines are unknown, but the clinical trials have been very rigorous and there are no serious effects that we know of. We know that the long-term effects of COVID can be quite severe.

It has helped people I know to talk to other people who have been vaccinated to learn about their experiences. If a bunch of people in your circle have been vaccinated, it can be useful to ask about their experiences to get an idea of what to expect post-vaccine.

Without getting into specifics, if you’d like to share about any conversations you’ve had in your circles, I’d love to hear about that.

People I’ve talked to are concerned about long-term effects of the vaccine and are wondering how bad the side effects are. They want the pandemic to be over, but they want to know more about the vaccine before they get it. 

We’re all getting vaccinated, though, and we are looking forward to when we can resume our normal lives and go to large gatherings again.

To read more of Fancy Comma, LLC’s thoughts on impactful science and health communications to address vaccine hesitancy, check out this post.

Are you a life sciences company in need of a biotech copywriter? Get in touch!

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