This post is by student science writer Rachael Lee.
When Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers announced he’d tested positive for COVID-19, the news shocked football fans everywhere, in part because Rodgers had told the public he was “immunized.” Most people took that to mean he’d been “vaccinated.” However, Rodgers has since shared that he received treatments other than the federally authorized or approved COVID-19 vaccines.
Throughout the course of the pandemic, the public has been bombarded with sometimes conflicting information about the science and medicine behind COVID-19. The confusion extends to the language of the pandemic. From terms such as “herd immunity” and “antibodies” to “vaccination,” vocabulary once used by healthcare workers or public health professionals has become part of the common lexicon.
To doctors, the terms “immunized” and “vaccinated” are nearly synonymous. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “immunization” protects someone against a disease — as a result of vaccination
But “immunity” can mean different things, says James Conway, head of the pediatric infectious disease fellowship program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a vaccine expert. Conway says there are two types of immunity: passive and active immunity. Passive immunity is a temporary immunity that occurs when the body is injected with antibodies (proteins that can fight a pathogen). This is a treatment often given to sick people to help them fight an infection. Active immunity occurs when the body is directly exposed to a pathogen (such as a virus), either by vaccination or infection.
There are differences in types of active immunity as well. Research has shown that the immunity that is generated by a natural infection may not last as long as active immunity from vaccination. Conway says those who only have immunity from natural infection may risk getting sick again later.
However, alternate approaches to developing immunity are not new. Conway recalls that as a child, before the availability of a vaccine against the virus that causes it, if one kid in his neighborhood contracted chickenpox, other children would be invited to their house for “chickenpox parties.” Conway says that this was common practice to essentially “get it over with.” Alternative methods such as this are not the safest option. Conway says the goal of a vaccine is to give people long lasting active immunity, without the risk of symptoms and potential complications from the actual disease.
And yet, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are people who, like Rodgers, have opted not to seek a safe and effective vaccine. Confusion over terms might have contributed to the widespread misconception and misinformation about the pandemic, especially around vaccination. But Conway says there are ways to reach those who may be hesitant to take the COVID-19 vaccine, but it’s important to first understand what drives vaccine hesitancy.
Some people may believe that vaccines are not safe, or they may be unable to take time off of work if they have side effects from their vaccine. “We did a project some years ago, we discovered there’s at least 120 different reasons that people had given for why they were hesitant to vaccinate their kids,” says Conway. The main sources of vaccine hesitancy include doubts about the safety of vaccines and underestimating the severity of diseases being prevented by vaccination, he notes.
Conway also recommends moving away from using the term “anti-vaxxer,” to describe people who forego vaccination. The term can be demeaning to people who have questions about their health care. “I think it’s sort of labeling people in a way that’s inappropriate… The majority of people that are vaccine hesitant actually still have gotten at least some vaccines,” says Conway. “I think most people have questions about all sorts of things around medicine.”
Conway says his approach to vaccine hesitancy is not one-size-fits all. “It’s not talking over their head, nor is it talking down to them, but listening in order to really meet them where they are and to try to address their specific concerns,” Conway says. This focus on transparency ensures that patients understand each recommendation that goes into their medical care.
Vaccine hesitancy is also not a constant. For some people, it may take seeing others around them they trust getting vaccinated for them to make their decision. Conway says, “As people have more interactions with other people that have been vaccinated, either in their community or in their school or in their church, it starts to then generate this idea that ‘not only is it safe, and people I know are doing it, but it actually is starting to become the cultural norm.’”
Conway emphasizes that it is important to validate those who ask questions about their health care. “They’re people that are actually doing what we want them to do in health care,” he says. “One of the things we’ve asked people in health care to do is to try to be better educated consumers.”