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What Vaccine Campaigns Can Learn from the Gay Rights Movement

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It’s become more and more and common to hear about outbreaks of old-school diseases like measles in neighborhoods where the cultural shift has been towards anti-vaccination. Well-meaning parents who eschew highly processed food and plastics with BPA take their natural parenting goals a tad too far and decline vaccines for their children. This is the result of celebrities and other confused individuals creating doubts about vaccines’ effectiveness and safety.

I understand how vaccines work, and I am very much in the camp that thinks they are the most important medical development in the past century. But I think I understand where the anti-vaccine parents are coming from. I’m not a parent myself, but I assume that watching a doctor inject your child with something is traumatizing. So if someone plants a seed of doubt in your mind that these needles aren’t necessary, I see why someone would be tempted to run with it. I also understand that by nature, we Homo sapiens are terrible at planning for dangers that aren’t immediately apparent. Because vaccines have been so effective at ridding whole populations of these previously meddlesome infections, people forget why we’re doing this and come to the questionable conclusion that we no longer need them. Ugh.

So now we have this increasingly common cultural custom of not vaccinated kids. How can we reverse this? We fight culture with culture. And this is where we can learn from the gay rights movement and the recent advances we’ve made here, particularly on the subject of gay marriage.

Remember when scores of people changed their profile picture to the equals sign, thereby showing their support of the cause? I personally thought it was a nice gesture, but ultimately one that would have zero effect on the cause itself. But then I read Melanie Tannenbaum’s post entitled “Will changing your Facebook profile picture do anything for marriage equality?” She explains that actually, the answer is yes.

Ever since then I’ve been wondering if vaccine advocates could do something similar. After all, if people feel it’s acceptable to forgo vaccines because “everybody’s doing it,” would they change their minds if they saw that among their peers, the consensus is that vaccines are important and necessary?

For the longest time I was trying to decide what simple image would best sum this up, the way the equals sign represented gay marriage. Definitely not a needle. That would not help the cause, as Glendon Mellow has already explained in Pro-Vaccine Communication: You’re Doing it Wrong.

So I thought about the actual goal of vaccines–to have antibodies ready to go for when the real virus turns up. And so, here is my proposed Facebook profile pic for a pro-vaccine social media movement. Now I just need a few million people to use it. Easy peasy.

Edit: As someone pointed out, I was oversimplifying the antibody structure a bit, so I have corrected that, and per request, I have added some different color variations.




Katie McKissick About the Author: Katie McKissick is a former high school biology teacher turned science writer and cartoonist based in Los Angeles, CA. Her first book is called What's in Your Genes. You can find more of work at Follow on Twitter @beatricebiology.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Glendon Mellow 11:18 pm 08/23/2013

    I love this post. Not just because I am mentioned in it. Fantastic idea.

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  2. 2. viktoriyay 11:35 pm 08/23/2013

    This idea is great and I’m very much on board, but your picture is incorrect. There should be two heavy chains.×500.jpg
    And I think for the most profound impact we need to be accurate. So I’m changing my profile picture to that, and urging to my med school friends to do the same. But I like your styling, it’s visually striking.

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  3. 3. capricorn45 4:08 am 08/24/2013

    As far as I am concerned, vaccination is an organised criminal enterprise dressed up as disease prevention by means of junk science. Knowing what I know about vaccination, there is NO WAY I would allow anyone with a vaccine come near me or any child of mine.

    The truth is that vaccines have never prevented anything apart from health, sanity and common sense and are of absolutely no benefit but only cause harm.

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  4. 4. capricorn45 4:09 am 08/24/2013

    Official statistics clearly show that vaccines have never saved anyone’s life:

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  5. 5. Glendon Mellow 6:54 am 08/24/2013

    Well capricorn45, at least you’re not wishing you could kill doctors who vaccinate like you did on my blog post.

    So: evil conspiracies aside, what do you think of the art design?

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  6. 6. tuned 11:27 am 08/24/2013

    While I an not against vaccinating people to prevent disease, it must be clear as science that
    abstain is 100% effective against sexual (and most all)communicable disease as well as unwanted pregnancies.
    Until a trusted partnership is welcomed (with blood tests)
    then self bop is the best way, preserving the benefits that it provides against prostate cancer (about 70% less chance I read).

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  7. 7. viktoriyay 11:58 am 08/24/2013

    I always find it incredibly amusing when people who aren’t scientist and don’t remotely understand the process of how good research is vetted claim things they don’t like or don’t understand as “junk science.” The single greatest advancement in medicine has been vaccines; it’s how we have virtually eradicated polio. I also find it curious that the great fight is against vaccines, which have little side effects, versus pharmaceutical agents needed to treat the diseases that the vaccines could prevent, since drugs although effective and much needed have loads of side effects.

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  8. 8. zstansfi 6:16 pm 08/24/2013

    I’m normally not a fan of this kind of stuff, but, for whatever reason, I like it ;)

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  9. 9. larkalt 9:58 pm 08/24/2013

    Being someone with incredibly bad allergy problems, that cursed Y seems like a menace, and nothing cheerful about facebook being stuffed with Y’s. Just like my head and thoughts are slogging through a mass of Y’s …

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  10. 10. 12:21 am 08/26/2013

    lol, larkait! wouldn’t have thought of it that way but now that you mention it… :/

    Ooh, so many different colors to choose from! Can’t. Decide. AH!

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  11. 11. Hitchiker of the Galaxy 5:15 am 08/26/2013

    The problem is general situation of scientific information in USA. As long as people will observe cases where science is a mouthpiece of commercial business, they will just ignore arguments. The keyword here is: trust.

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  12. 12. tarasue 2:51 pm 09/3/2013

    Ok, so obviously I LOVE this concept and I’m totally on board with it. Glendon knows how passionate I am about this, and an effective PR campaign is one of the things public health officials have desperately needed re: vaccination for a long time.

    However, I have one pretty big problem, and I feel kinda guilty mentioning it, but it really is pretty huge: It looks like a uterus, or an IUD in a uterus. I’m not saying that just because I’m a female or it’s something on my mind. That was honestly the first thing I thought when I saw it on Matt Shipman’s FB photo. I saw him change his FB image to this and immediately thought, “Is this a new stylized symbol to represent female reproductive rights and pro-choice?” It was an instantaneous connection, and I know others will think it too, in part because of recent similar images actually used during the abortion-related debates in the Texas legislature. I have a couple dozen friends who changed their profile pics to uteruses, some stylized, some less so, and some saying “Come and take it.” This resembles them way too much.

    That’s problem because its resemblance, even if someone thought it was slight, would turn off anyone who is pro-life but pro-vaccination. I love the idea, and I really think this is necessary and something I’ll promote the hell out of, but I don’t think this particular design will work because people are more familiar with the basic shape of a uterus than they are with the shape of an antibody. (I suppose another option is to turn it sideways?)

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