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A year of breathless coaching in science reporting

This undated handout image obtained on August 11, 2020 shows a transmission electron micrograph of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, isolated from a patient, captured and colour-enhanced at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Integrated Research Facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland, U.S. Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases via AFP  

In February, when the government revived its ritual, the universal immunisation programme, news of two infants dying in Coimbatore, in Tamil Nadu, 24 hours after vaccination, did not create as much noise as it would have, otherwise. This is possibly because people were distracted, even obsessed, with the COVID-19 vaccines.

In a sense, the revenge of science is complete. Discussions about viruses and vaccines had been largely confined to closed-door deliberations in scientific institutions, hospital boardrooms, and among the health bureaucracy. Now, all of it has been been dragged into drawing rooms, television debates, social media chatter, on to the roads, and on the lips of children too.

It is not as if one could get away from talking about the COVID-19 pandemic; wherever you go, there it is. With India launching the COVID-19 vaccine programme, which is probably the largest logistical exercise of its kind in the world, it is no wonder that vaccine talk is buzzing — people are exchanging side effects stories, comparing vaccination passports, and rolling up a sleeve showing off their deltoid muscle, where they got the shot.

It has not always been like this. Health journalists have had to be at it though, even when vaccines were not attention grabbers. There has been enough vaccine news in this country to fuel several newspaper columns; and immunisation has been a key component of every State’s public health programme. The oral polio vaccination drive, with the involvement of the Rotary Club, was among the flagship immunisation programmes in India. It was a resounding success, but not without blimps and moments of anxiety, questions of efficacy, and vaccine hesitancy.

Public health advocacy has always put the media at the centre of any vaccine hesitancy debate. Panic reporting has often led to greater vaccine hesitancy in public immunisation programmes, studies show. But reporting on adverse effects following immunisation is like having to walk a high wire, with journalists trespassing into areas where independent verification of the causes of adverse incidents or even access to the key elements in the case is not possible. Pockets in the country have traditionally been suspicious of vaccines and the media has played a role in the massive awareness drives that were conducted across the country, to pull up coverage and achieve immunisation and pathogen eradication targets.

Vaccine-related severe adverse events and deaths have been reported from time to time diligently by the media — sometimes, not very responsibly. But children’s immunisation has dominated the coverage; adult immunisation, though significant, has received very marginal coverage. COVID-19 highlighted true vaccine hesitancy as never before in the country.

With people consuming everything (including what comes unverified on WhatsApp), the task of health journalists has become more intense. They have seldom been busier, trying to catch up with the multiple and myriad aspects of vaccination and in this case, given the extraordinary circumstances of the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, highlighting clinical phases, following the entire life cycle from lab to the field, and then on to patients, all in a pace that approximates breathlessness.

In a sense, all of 2020 has been the treadmill test version of coaching in science reporting. What it has taught health journalists about vaccines and one virus are precious lessons for a career.

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Printable version | Apr 14, 2021 5:38:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-year-of-breathless-coaching-in-science-reporting/article33991437.ece

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