Vaccines Are Like Sunscreen … No, Wait, Airbags … No, Wait …

Everyone is bad at describing the vaccines, including me.

By Katherine J. Wu
The Atlantic
August 12, 2021

For the past year or so, I’ve been reporting on the COVID-19 vaccines, a job that’s required me to convey, again and again, how inoculations work to boost immunity and why. The shots are new, and immunology is complex. So I, like so many others in journalism and science, turned to analogies to help make the ideas of disease prevention and public health tangible. Vaccines, as I’ve written, protect us a lot like umbrellas block out the rain, sunscreens shield us from burns and cancers, and castle guards fend off raids.

Analogies, metaphors, similes, and the like are evocative and memorable. They transform the abstract into the concrete. And they very often work, especially when used to depict a virus or an infection, which are almost entirely unseen. But a lot of the ideas we link to COVID-19 vaccines—including plenty I’ve used—don’t totally hit the mark. Too many focus on vaccines’ individual perks. And they end up skating over one of the greatest benefits of immunization: a boost in wellness at the community level, by cutting down on transmission and, by extension, illness for everyone else. For immunization to truly pack a punch, Amanda Simanek, a social epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, told me, “we all have to do it.”

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