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Brown Boosts Immunity combats vaccine hesitancy in Rhode Island

Student-founded organization aims to provide vaccine hesitant individuals with resources to make informed decisions

As COVID-19 vaccines become increasingly available, the student-led organization Brown Boosts Immunity aims to counter vaccine hesitancy in Rhode Island through education, community partnerships and a “humanizing” approach, co-founder Rebka Ephrem ’21 said.

Though the five-month-old organization strives to increase vaccine uptake, the goal of Brown Boosts Immunity is to be a non-political source of information that arms people with the confidence to make educated decisions about vaccination, Ephrem added.

The organization’s overarching focus is on vaccines in general, but Brown Boosts Immunity has dedicated most of its recent efforts to promoting confidence in the new COVID-19 vaccines, co-founder Roshan Sapkota ’23 said.

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, which were approved by the Food and Drug Administration in under a year, uses mRNA technology relatively new to the public. The vaccines’ use of mRNA has resulted in significant vaccine hesitancy stemming from people’s “trepidation towards the new,” Dioscaris Garcia, assistant professor of molecular pharmacology, said.

According to Biotechnology Professor and Executive organizer of Brown Boosts Immunity Toni-Marie Achilli, much of this hesitancy can be attributed to “the feeling of not having all the information” and a perceived “lack of transparency” with the public. She believes people have a fearful visceral reaction to intangible scientific terms and concepts, so “making (the science) understandable and seem relatable is something that’s important.” 

“People want to know more about the (COVID-19) vaccine, but with a simple (Google) search it’s not as easy to find the differences” between the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, co-founder Isaiah Dawkins ’23 said. In his view, Brown Boosts Immunity serves as a resource for streamlined information about vaccination at a time when the topic has been highly politicized. 

Achilli stressed the need for vaccine information to come from “non-biased” and “educated” sources. She believes that because it has access to the “trusted knowledge” of academia and lacks a governmental affiliation, Brown Boosts Immunity has an advantage in meeting this communal demand for information on vaccines.

The idea for the organization emerged from BIOL 0170: “Biotechnology in Medicine,” a class taught by Achilli that Esphrem was a TA for during the fall semester. After Achilli alluded to the rise of vaccine hesitancy at the conclusion of one lecture in September, then-students Sapkota and Dawkins stayed after class to ask questions and discuss the subject further.

During that conversation, Sapkota shared his view that one of the most impactful public health campaigns was the anti-smoking campaign, and Achilli posed the question of what insights could be extracted from the success of the anti-smoking campaign and applied to existing vaccine hesitancy. The exchange that followed set the foundation for Brown Boosts Immunity, Sapkota said.

One anti-smoking initiative from which Brown Boosts Immunity took inspiration was “The Real Cost” campaign, which involved a series of TV advertisements showing people suffering from the graphic, lesser known side effects of smoking, such as skin peeling and teeth falling out. “It was really powerful to see” because “it had real people in it,” Ephrem said.

In order to mimic the approach of “putting faces to the message,” the organization compiled testimonials, beginning with students enrolled in Achilli’s class, Ephrem said. In these testimonials, interviewees were asked to share the reasons why they get vaccinated.

“People from other countries and certain communities might have different experiences surrounding vaccines,” Ephrem said. “We wanted to hear those opinions and see what drives people to” get vaccinated. 

Since vaccine-hesitant individuals have acquired a greater platform in recent years, the organization’s co-founders chose this testimonial strategy to give a platform to people who do get vaccinated. “We want to give people the opportunity to take pride in the fact that they protect their community” through vaccination, Ephrem said.

Under Achilli’s suggestion, Sapkota, Dawkins and Ephrem successfully applied for an Engaged Course Development Grant from the Swearer Center in order to acquire the initial funds to start Brown Boosts Immunity.

Director of Engaged Scholarship in the Swearer Center Julie Plaut praised Brown Boosts Immunity as “a great example of engaged scholarship” for “listening to others and analyzing what’s going on … (and then) contributing to positive change.”

Brown Boosts Immunity also partnered with the Rhode Island Department of Health to supply local vaccination clinics with flyers and stickers.

Lesa Volpe, immunization program manager of the Wellness Company in Providence, said the Brown Boosts Immunity stickers have “been a big hit” at the clinic. “Patients are so excited to choose their favorite (sticker),” she said. “It’s great to see the smiles and hear the fun conversations at the clinics.”

Brown Boosts Immunity has also listed information on its website and shared testimonials and infographics on its Instagram page in its effort to educate Rhode Islanders about vaccines.

Over the past several months, Garcia has worked across multiple Rhode Island state and municipal entities to spearhead a similar, but independently formed, vaccination campaign, “Reason Why.” Garcia’s organization encourages people to share reasons why they got vaccinated on social media and local radio stations. Like the founders of Brown Boosts Immunity, Garcia discovered that it was helpful to “put a human face” to the message.

After Garcia learned about Brown Boosts Immunity, he and colleague Achilli began swapping information to inform each other’s campaigns. The two have been trying to identify what findings from Garcia’s work at the municipal and state level can be applied to Brown and vice versa.

In the future, Brown Boosts Immunity wants to distribute educational materials to pediatric offices throughout the Ocean State. The group’s hope is to organize educational forums with medical experts and community leaders and to connect with public high school teachers who could integrate ideas that promote vaccine confidence into their interactions with students. 

Achilli stressed the role that Brown students can play in promoting vaccine acceptance through daily conversations. “Any student can get involved at a very base level just by educating themselves and being open to conversations that can be controversial,” she said.

For Garcia, Brown Boosts Immunity and other similar efforts work to protect the health of the Brown community and Rhode Island at large. 

“At the end of the day, all of us are connected,” Garcia said. “That is something that we’ve learned through this year-long event.”



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