Lost in translation – how our language about COVID-19 can be misunderstood

Covid-19, Opinion

Words have power, far beyond their literal meaning.

The words we use to explain and alert the public about the COVID pandemic can contribute to misunderstandings and open the door to misinformation. I’ve spent the past 25 years in health and community development around the African continent and it’s clear that we must communicate simply and clearly to effect change. People want information to make the important decisions that affect their lives and the lives of their families and loved ones. We must make information available and easy to understand.

There’s no such thing as a “breakthrough infection” when it comes to COVID

When we talk about breakthrough infections, we inadvertently imply that a vaccine acts like a wall and prevents the virus from entering the human body.. This just isn’t true. The virus can still enter the body of a vaccinated person. Vaccines prevent the infection from progressing to severe illness. This means that vaccinated people will either have very mild symptoms, which they can manage easily at home, or be asymptomatic . This is why it is critical to still wear a mask and follow all the public health measures after being vaccinated: a vaccinated person can still carry and spread the virus .

When the vaccine hesitant hear about breakthrough infections and that vaccinated people can still contract and carry the virus, they may hear that the vaccine does not work. And this matters. From the HSRC’s most recent survey in South Africa (released 17 August 2021), we know that people that are vaccine hesitant worry about side effects and they worry that the vaccine may be ineffective. The concept of breakthrough infections feeds mistrust in vaccines and right now we need to help people understand what vaccines can and cannot do.

Science, by design, moves in fits and starts

While the rapid development of vaccines in under a year seems miraculous, it was no miracle. This was accomplished through global collaboration and ahistorical levels of funding and focus. South Africa should know this well, as the site of numerous trials and now a site of production and distribution of vaccines. Also, beyond the tremendous focus and commitment of the global community, the COVID vaccine efforts built upon decades of research and innovation. The first recognised vaccine, for smallpox, was developed over 200 years ago at the end of the 18th century. And mRNA technology, which many of the current vaccines utilise, has been in development since the 1960s and in deep development since the 1990s. The science and technology is not new; the use for COVID is the only thing that is new.

Science, by design, is uncertain

Science and medicine are iterative and collaborative and are built on transparent and passionate debate and shared through peer reviewed sources, where scientists openly scrutinise each other’s work. The very nature of peer review – professional scepticism, Socratic questioning, and consensus – might breed mistrust and misunderstanding to the lay person. Instinctively, we want certainty. Science is messy and uncertain as we investigate findings and expand our understanding of the world. The past year and a half is testament to this; guidance has changed as we’ve learned more about COVID.

As we move forward, let’s drop “breakthrough infections” from our vocabulary. Vaccines protect us from serious illness, hospitalisation and death; not from contracting COVID. Let’s help everyone understand the real value of vaccines and provide clear information on how vaccines protect us all.

mRNA technology, which many of the current vaccines utilise, has been in development since the 1960s and in deep development since the 1990s. The science and technology is not new; the use for COVID is the only thing that is new.

Check out this article on Sunday Times

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