​Building Bridges: The Art and Science of Immunization Symposium


27 April 2017

This April, PHO and the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto hosted the Art and Science of Immunization Symposium. This event explored the breadth of perspectives on immunization issues and how those in arts and science fields can work together to address them. A major focus of the day was on vaccine hesitancy. There was significant discussion around how a humanities approach can inform how we communicate with the public and weave a narrative to help bridge the gap between science and the public. Attendees were a diverse mix, with backgrounds in fields such as immunology, epidemiology, history, English, anthropology and even theatre studies.

Ève Dubé, a professor of anthropology at Université Laval and keynote speaker, talked about vaccine hesitancy from an anthropological perspective. She explained that vaccine hesitancy isn’t a simple issue, but rather a complex interplay of personal, cultural, societal and economic factors. She further explained that our behaviour isn’t always based on logic and reason, and that humans tend to look for information in the world that agrees with their decisions. The final takeaway was that public health and anthropology have contrasting yet complementary approaches that can be used to address vaccine hesitancy.

Natasha Crowcroft, Chief of Applied Immunization Research at PHO talked about the history of vaccine preventable disease, and its role in major historical events. She described how during the Battle of Quebec in 1775, immune British soldiers were victorious against the American invaders who were ravaged by smallpox.

Shelly Bolotin and Allison Crehore from PHO, and Avnee Paranjapa, a graduate student from U of T, performed a short skit on translating science from technical terms to plain language, and finally, how the public interprets this. This humorous presentation helped to show the major divide that exists between the way scientists speak, and what the public understands.

Kim Barnhardt, Strategic Communications Advisor with CANImmunize and the Canadian Medical Association Journal, discussed the creation of a “motion comic” called Immunity Warriors. This comic teaches children about vaccines and how they protect against disease. Kim explained that while many adults tend to be firm in their attitudes towards health behaviours, children are more flexible, and are important stakeholders in their own health decisions.

Allison Humphrey, a PhD student in Cinema and Media Arts from York University, introduced her interactive motion capture game, Poxémon. Players users use their arms and legs to fight off the “shadowpox” disease that attacks the individual, meanwhile trying to protect 100 other characters on the screen from infection. This game helps players to understand how infectious diseases can spread in a population, or be protected by vaccination. Attendees had the opportunity to demo the game during breaks.

Overall the day was enlightening and entertaining. As public health continues forward in addressing immunization issues, we may have unexpected allies from other fields, and perhaps a thing or two to learn from them as well.

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Updated 27 April 2017