Vaccine Analogies and Metaphors

Analogies and metaphors are a good way to explain things, including that vaccines are safe and necessary.

We are sunk if we stop vaccinating.
As the CDC explains, we are sunk if we stop vaccinating.

Here are some of my favorite vaccine analogies and metaphors.

Getting vaccinated is like:

  • applying sunscreen before going to the beach
  • applying insect repellent before going camping in the woods
  • making sure that your kids are wearing a seat belt or sitting in an age-appropriate car seat or booster seat when you get in the car
  • installing anti-virus software on your new computer

When do you put on your seat belt? When you get in the car, before you get in an accident. Just like a vaccine. You get it before you get sick. Yes, some vaccines do work after you have been exposed to an illness, but they don’t work after you are already sick.

There is a problem with these metaphors though; they don’t include the risks to other people.

These do:

  • taking driver’s ed and getting your license before driving
  • taking swimming lessons before going in the water without a life jacket
  • putting your gun in a locked safe
  • putting a fence around your backyard so that no one in your neighborhood can drown in your pool
  • making sure folks don’t text and drive

That’s right.

Vaccination equals protection.

And not just protection for the person getting vaccinated. Being unvaccinated puts others at risk too, as you might start an outbreak.

Getting your kids vaccinated is like taking them to swimming lessons instead of just throwing them in the lake. Either way they can learn to swim and have protection/immunity from drowning. But one method (throwing them in the lake) is much more dangerous than the other.

Analogies can also help explain how vaccines work.

“Vaccines are a like a wanted poster, they just show your body what the bad guys look like, so when faced with them for real you are ready, prepared, and able to stop them before they cause harm.”

Can vaccines overwhelm the immune system?

Are there analogies that explain the idea of free-riders – folks who intentionally don’t vaccinate their kids and attempt to hide in the herd?

“If all my child’s friends are vaccinated, won’t he be protected by herd immunity? Why should I put my child at risk for vaccine reactions if all the other children around him are already immune?

This is like riding in a carpool where everyone contributes each month to pay for gas, repairs and parking. One morning, a new neighbor shows up and says, “I think I’ll ride along with you. But I’m not going to pay, since you’re going downtown anyway and you have an empty seat.” If enough people choose to take a free ride on other children’s immunity, herd immunity will soon disappear.”

Why is herd immunity so important?

And to explain the idea of what some folks consider vaccine injuries.

“I have found that it sometimes helps to give parents an analogy. I ask them the following: If they were to put gas in their car and then later got a flat tire, would that mean putting gas in the car had caused the flat tire? No. The two events were just a coincidence.”

Karen Lewis on What Vaccine Safety Means

What are some good analogies to describe how some anti-vax folks think?

Since that bridge isn’t 100% safe (I Googled that some bridges have collapsed), I’m going to let my kids swim across this river with fast moving water.

Have you heard the bridge analogy?

There are also versions with crocodiles in the water…

In case it’s not clear, in this analogy, walking across the bridge is like getting vaccinated. Swimming across the river is like intentionally not vaccinating your kids.

There are plenty of other good analogies that help to explain the importance of vaccines.

“Clusters of unvaccinated people are like patches of dry grass that, with a single match, can start a wildfire that will burn not only dry material, but sometimes wet as well. The match could be a student who returns from a trip abroad with measles or a train commuter with whooping cough.”

Saad Omer

It’s also important to remember that anyone, even those who are well prepared, can get burned in a wildfire. That’s why the analogy works so well.

“Vaccinating one’s children is like paying taxes. We all have a moral and a legal duty to pay taxes because we have a moral and a legal duty to contribute to the upkeep of our society and to its public goods (e.g., a good public health system, national defence, etc.).”

Vaccine Refusal Is Like Tax Evasion

Why are we concerned about those who are unvaccinated if our own children are fully vaccinated?

“Think of camping as an analogy. If everyone at a campground properly stores their food, bears won’t be enticed to come around. If even one person leaves their food unprotected, it invites bears in to investigate all the campsites for opportunities to eat.”

How does choosing not to immunize affect the community?

These analogies help explain how unvaccinated folks put others at risk.

“Being intentionally unvaccinated against highly contagious diseases is, to carry Holmes’ analogy a bit further, like walking down a street randomly swinging your fists without warning. You may not hit an innocent bystander, but you’ve substantially increased the chances that you will.

One might usefully analogize the risk of disease to a crapshoot. A person’s chance of being infected is, as Dr. Singer acknowledges, a matter of luck. But is it really OK for the unvaccinated to load the dice to increase the odds against other people? If so, by how much?”

Ronald Bailey on Vaccines and the Responsibility To Not Put Others at Risk

Of course, there are plenty of bad vaccine analogies and metaphors that anti-vaccine folks push:

  • getting vaccinated is like rape
  • getting vaccinated is like the Holocaust
  • “genes load the gun but the vaccines pull the trigger”
  • vaccine manufacturers are like tobacco manufacturers
  • I won’t set my child on fire to keep yours warm (this doesn’t work as a vaccine analogy, mostly because there is no benefit to setting your child on fire. Would an anti-vaxxer let their child start a campfire to keep their friends from dying in the cold?)
  • getting a vaccine is like eating a handful of M&Ms out of a big bowl when you know that a few have been poisoned
  • getting a child  vaccinated is like giving 1,000 kids 1,000 cupcakes, telling them to pick one and eat it, knowing that one of the cupcakes is poisoned (it’s maybe like letting a child with a severe peanut allergy choose a cupcake, knowing that there is a one in a million chance that the cupcake he chooses has been made with peanuts…)
  • I want safer cars, but that doesn’t make me anti-car

You understand why the anti-car one is a bad analogy, right? Folks who want safer cars generally still drive and ride in cars!

Have you heard any good or bad analogies or mataphors about vaccines?

More on Vaccine Analogies and Metaphors

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