Published on 13 June 2022
A Sunderland academic is part of a north-east engagement project which aims to increase COVID-19 vaccine uptake in underserved communities across the region.
While the pandemic may not be making major headlines now, statistics show that the disease has not gone away, deaths are still occurring and there remains sections of the population still unvaccinated.
To increase public understanding of the importance of Covid-19 vaccination, a pilot project was trialed in London last year by the British Society for Immunology (BSI), the UK organisation representing scientists and clinicians who study the immune system. It was developed to train people who hold social capital in communities, combining knowledge of immunologists with the expertise of the local area and people. The experts provided them with the tools to have effective conversations about COVID-19 vaccines with their families, friends, colleagues and contacts, developing a network of vaccine champions and ultimately helping drive vaccine uptake.
Dr Graeme O’Boyle, Senior Lecturer in Immunology at the University of Sunderland, is part of the north-east rollout of the project, funded by Newcastle City Council, bringing his scientific expertise in how white blood cells protect us against infection.
He will join health and science experts from across the region and beyond over the next five weeks to spread the important message about vaccine effectiveness and safety.
Graeme, who also volunteered to administer the vaccines at the Sunderland Nightingale Hospital during the pandemic, said: “I will be speaking to community leaders in areas where we have poor vaccine uptake for various reasons; explaining the science behind vaccines and focusing on developing an understanding of how vaccines work, why they are important, as well as skills on how to actively listen to and answer specific questions and concerns.
“The sessions are user-led, meaning that participants shared key questions they and their communities have on COVID-19 vaccines and the course content is adapted to address these.”
He added: “Some of the training is about recognising fears and shared experiences.”
Councillor Karen Kilgour, Deputy Leader of Newcastle City Council and Healthy, Caring City Cabinet Member, said: “The training being rolled out in the north-east by the BSI perfectly complements what we have achieved through our Community Champions programme during the pandemic.
“Our network of community leaders have worked closely with public health to shape and share accurate information within their communities, allowing more and more of our residents to make informed choices around vaccination and keeping themselves and others safe.
“I’m really proud that we’re able to support this training programme and I’m delighted our Community Champions will benefit from the expertise of the BSI to further enhance the important work they do for the residents of our city and our collective action on inequalities.”
Dr Erika Aquino, BSI Public Engagement Manager, said: “The BSI recognises that it’s still vitally important to engage with the public about COVID-19 vaccinations by listening to and addressing questions.
“Our members are immunology scientists who are ideally placed to be expert sources of knowledge in these conversations and through partnering with organisations that support local communities, reliable evidence-based information about vaccines can reach wide audiences. The community champions in Newcastle are experienced in engaging with local people and we worked with them over five weeks to build their confidence in having constructive dialogues around vaccine concerns. These vaccine engagement sessions provided a safe space for open and honest conversations in which participants were encouraged to share their own experiences and learn from each other.
“It was a pleasure building relationships with the Newcastle community champions and involving local immunologists working in the North-East to help strengthen public understanding of COVID-19 vaccinations.”
The BSI London pilot project showed that participants were very positive about their experiences of the training, with 100% of the community leaders feeling better informed, more knowledgeable and more confident about having effective conversations about Covid-19 vaccinations.
For more information about the BSI Project, click here.