February 7, 2018

Current Issues
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Hiding in Plain Sight:
Considerations for Improving
Vaccine Communication


Glen Nowak, PhD

VDC Member-in-Good-Standing
Director, Center for Health & Risk Communication
University of Georgia

Clubhouse Location:
WHSCAB Plaza & Auditorium
6:00pm — wine, cheese, networking
6:30pm — meeting convenes
7:45pm — casual buffet dinner, more networking

Dear Vacciners,
Using words or images to communicate information about vaccines is a practice as old as vaccines themselves.

My personal favorite anti-vaccine image comes from the 17th century and depicts Edward Jenner vaccinating a room full of people, each of whom promptly starts sprouting actual cows all over his or her body.

But this one from the early 1900s is pretty good too – it depicts a "Vaccine Upas Tree" growing in a cemetery bearing the poisoned "fruits of vaccination" and warning that "the root that poisons the young life blood of the nation; it biteth like a serpent and stingeth like an adder."

BTW: using an Upas tree as the icon in that picture was a particularly clever touch because, at that time, it was believed that upas trees exuded a poisonous miasma that would kill anyone who breathed it in. That turns out to be giving the tree too much credit but it's still a pretty lethal bit of herbage -- the crossword addicted among us know that the seeds of upas trees are used to make strychnine and that poison darts are tipped with its sap.

Pro-public health communicators like to use imagery too. In one example from the mid 1900s that feels EXTREMELY timely right now, postcards were disseminated showing little girls using a skipping rhyme to remember how important it is to get a flu shot.

And not to be outdone, the National Child Welfare Association of New York published a poster depicting a young David slaying the Goliath of Tuberculosis simply by standing up straight.

So we've been communicating about vaccine-related stuff for quite a while. It hasn't always gone well.

Just ask the famous Puritan theologian Cotton Mather. In 1721 (75 years before Jenner threatened to make cows sprout from people's foreheads and 30 years after he (Mather) almost singlehandedly sparked the Salem Witch Trials), Rev. Mather publicly urged the people of Boston to be variolated* in an effort to halt a smallpox epidemic that was then raging through the city. Later that day someone tossed a homemade grenade into Rev. Mather's house, setting it on fire. The note attached to the proto-molotov cocktail said: "COTTON MATHER, You Dog, Dam You. I'll inoculate you with this, with a POX to you."

Sometimes it feels like things haven't improved a whole lot since then.

In an era in which VacTruth.com responds to the worst influenza season since the 1990s swine flu epidemic by re-posting a website from 2013 that trumpets: 8 Damn Good Reasons Not to Get the Flu Shot, and then NaturalHealth.com goes one better by republishing and adding some extra reasons of their own (Flu shots contain antibiotics and cause Alzheimer's disease), you have to wonder how, if, we can do this whole communicating thing better.

Their side uses fire bombs and pictures of poison trees and women giving birth to cows, while we rely on little girls skipping rope and slingshots plus the occasional shout of ironic laughter at the fix we are in.


Well, we could try inventing an application that automatically inserts pro-vaccine messages into the middle of random Tweets -- for example, here is a recent (1/27/18) Tweet from @realDonaldTrump that has been filtered through the proposed "PosVac" app …. "Democrats are not interested in Border Safety & Security or in the funding and rebuilding of our Military. They are only interested in Obstruction! And Vaccines! Get vaccinated for the flu NOW!"

Or how about a PosVac-filtered version of the Tweet @SeanHannity posted on 1/26/18 after he got back on Twitter following the second disruption of his account: "I'm baaaccckk from getting vaccinated against Shingles!"

An intriguing idea to be sure.

Barring that, why don't we all agree to start getting better at Vaccine Communication by registering to attend the February 7 meeting of the Vaccine Dinner Club when Glen Nowak will try to lead us out of the wilderness. (The same Glen Nowak, by the way, who was accused -- in Reason #8 of the VacTruth.com website -- of providing the CDC with a Recipe for Generating Fear).

Be there or be misinformed.
your friendly neighborhood Vaccine Dinner Club goddess

* 'Variolation, which was introduced from Africa to North America by Cotton Mather's slave Onesimus, refers to the pre-vaccine practice of conferring protective immunity to severe smallpox by intentionally infecting someone with a mild case. This was done by taking dried smallpox scabs and blowing them up a person's nose (presumably using a straw) or burying them under the skin of the hand or arm, via a cut made for that purpose.