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Spotlight on the Alliance for Vaccine Literacy

Purnima Madhivanan, PhD, MBBS, MPH, came to the University of Arizona Health Sciences in the summer of 2019, when she joined the faculty of the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health as associate professor in health promotion sciences and director of the Global Health Training Program.

One of the first things she did when she arrived in Tucson was to seek out potential collaborators who shared her interests in viral infections and vaccine-preventable diseases.

“I made my rounds trying to network,” she recalled. “I marched into the Pima County Health Department to meet the folks there.”

That’s where she encountered Carlos Perez-Velez, MD, and Mary Kinkade, who told her how few people in Pima County were receiving the influenza vaccine. In the last months of 2019, Dr. Madhivanan forged a collaboration between the health department and the university to understand who wasn’t getting the flu shot and why. By gathering information in focus groups and through surveys, they hoped to formulate tailored messaging to address people’s greatest concerns about the flu vaccine.

“As we started writing up the protocol, come January, we started hearing the word COVID,” Dr. Madhivanan said. “By March, we were shut down.”

The pandemic was a hurdle, but it wasn’t high enough to stop the newly minted team from transitioning to a virtual workspace and forging ahead. On a shoestring budget they ultimately conducted 11 focus group discussions and administered 1,700 surveys gauging Pima County residents’ knowledge and attitudes about vaccines.

They were no longer just interested in the flu shot. Anticipating that there would be a COVID-19 vaccine sometime in the future, they added a few questions to their surveys and focus groups, tracking attitudes toward a potential COVID-19 vaccine in real time.

By January 2021, the effort had grown to include several UArizona Health Sciences and UArizona faculty members and 35 undergraduate and graduate students. They dubbed themselves the Alliance for Vaccine Literacy and adopted the mission to promote evidence-based communication about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. The team reaches out to community members, parents, health care organizations, local governments and community-based organizations.

Harnessing student talent

The Alliance for Vaccine Literacy is open to any student interested in the mission, matching them to projects based on the talents they bring to the table. Students with social media skills investigate strategies for communicating successfully on that medium, while students with a foundation in data analysis crunch the numbers and interpret them for a lay audience.

“We find out where they are, what they’re interested in, and plug them into the pieces we want them to work on,” Dr. Madhivanan said.

They have presented at conferences and are beginning to write up their findings in papers, and are already seeing tangible results. For example, collaboration between the Alliance for Vaccine Literacy and the Pima County Health Department could influence how the COVID-19 vaccine is promoted in the county.

“We can actually influence policy and rollout,” Dr. Madhivanan said. “The students have achieved something!”

Dr. Madhivanan, who is also a member of the BIO5 Institute and the UArizona Cancer Center, expresses amazement over her students’ accomplishments, especially with so few resources. She believes they are driven by their excitement for the work and their ability to contribute to their communities — traits that she has in common with her students.

“I’m happy to share my enthusiasm with people around me,” she said. “Something has to wake you up in the morning, and if you love what you do, there’s no reason not to wake up and get the day going. I love what I do, so I don’t even think of this as work.”