Vaccine superheroes: Experts impressed with communications that target children

·4 min read

Whether using a video of Batman shadowing a public health professional or a picture of a purple cartoon character playing hockey, Canadian health units and science communication groups are trying to find ways to inspire young audiences to get the COVID-19 vaccine days before the country is expected to begin the next phase of its immunization drive.

Health Canada approved the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for kids aged five to 11 on Friday after reviewing safety and efficacy data from the company for weeks, and doses are expected to arrive in the provinces and territories in the coming days.

As jurisdictions await their shipments, some are gearing up their vaccine communication strategies by injecting youthful themes into their messaging.

Experts say communication around the pediatric vaccine rollout needs to be kid-friendly, clear and concise to drown out misinformation from social media.

"There's a lot of misinformation that can get amplified when it comes to children," said Shana MacDonald, a communications expert with the University of Waterloo. "The fear is that's going to produce hesitancy that doesn't need to be there.

"But I do think public health units are doing excellent work in their communication, making it stronger and shareable."

MacDonald said she's been impressed with some of the messaging she's seen from various health units and those she calls "science influencers" — experts who've taken it upon themselves to produce and share accurate vaccine content on their own social platforms.

Institutions like the University of Waterloo's School of Pharmacy have been on the forefront of creating easily digestible COVID-19 infographics, partnering with a number of doctors and communication experts to create and share info more widely.

One of those collaborative groups, called Focused COVID Communication, released a graphic on Instagram Friday depicting a smiling purple cartoon figure playing hockey, celebrating a birthday with family, and hanging out with friends to showcase "the benefits of vaccinating children against COVID-19."

Superhero themes also filled the messaging in tweets from other jurisdictions on Friday, including Alberta Health Services, which shared an interactive game where kids choose a character and "build protection ... through important actions such as immunization, diligent hand washing, wearing a mask and social distancing" to defeat "COVID-zilla."

The Ontario Region of Peel released a video on its Twitter account Friday featuring "Brampton Batman" and Medical Officer of Health Dr. Lawrence Loh rolling up to a vaccine clinic in the Batmobile. The comic book legend, in his unmistakable deep voice, calls kids "the real heroes throughout this."

The video, which had been retweeted more than 400 times as of Saturday afternoon, garnered mostly positive replies. Some commenters, however, objected to using Batman to promote vaccines.

MacDonald said adding a superhero element to the video made it more relatable to children.

"It generates some excitement for them and it's a way to counter uncertainty, hesitation and fear," she said. "It may not be well received by everyone on the internet, but they aren't the target demographic."

Sabina Vohra-Miller, a pharmacology expert and founder of the health communication website Unambiguous Science, said vaccine messaging should strive to meet audiences where they're at.

Vohra-Miller, who's been working with Focused COVID Communication since the initiative launched in the spring, said using superheroes and interactive games is a good strategy.

"Children are so open and receptive and this is a great opportunity for us to build on their science literacy and do it in a way that engages them and includes them," she said, adding that her four-and-a-half-year-old son knows a lot about vaccines "because we talk about them and make it fun."

Dr. Samira Jeimy, a clinical immunologist and assistant professor at Western University in London, Ont., was also a fan of the superhero messaging, but said communicators shouldn't rely too heavily on that one theme and risk alienating kids with no interest in caped crusaders.

A straight-forward approach that tailors messaging to what children care about can do wonders, she said.

"Some of my patients don't care (about superheroes), they care about unicorns," said Jeimy, who's involved with Focused COVID Communication. "Honestly, kids are a lot smarter than we realize. Giving them the facts straight, (saying) 'the vaccine will protect you so everyone get back to real life and be with your friends and family again.' ... Those messages have concrete meaning for kids."

Jeimy and Vohra-Miller said some of the challenges around kids vaccine messaging is the perception parents have that COVID-19 won't affect their children.

While severe disease remains rare in kids, some have endured lingering effects including long COVID symptoms and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). They can also transmit the virus to others.

"We've had this built up that having a COVID infection is not a big deal for kids and I think we need to strongly, with evidence, show that's not the case," Jeimy said. "Children have suffered enough and it's time to get them back to social activities that will help them grow."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 20, 2021.

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press

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