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What Vaccine Campaigns Can Learn from the Gay Rights Movement


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.




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

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