Medical Examiner

Vaccines Are Good. Shots Still Stink.

A new set of images showing vaccination as mainly painless has the best of intentions, but … really?

A girl smiles as she gets a shot.
Have you ever really smiled while getting a shot?
Heather Hazzan/Self magazine

This week, Self magazine and the American Academy of Pediatrics released a set of stock images of adult and kids getting shots while looking generally calm, collected, and even happy. They’re gorgeous photos, featuring a diverse set of people with a range of body types and fashion sensibilities. The overall tone is warm, not stilted. They are available on Flickr to download and use for free. There is one at the top of this post.

The point is to show that getting vaccinated can be a neutral-to-positive experience, rather than a painful one. The free-use collection is to help journalists like me illustrate stories with this type of photo, rather than one of a child panicking at getting a shot. Critics argue that those kind of photos feed into the ideas that vaccination is scary.

“We want people to continue to talk about the life-saving power of vaccines,” Casey Gueren, Self’s health director wrote about the goal of the images, many of which the magazine used to illustrate a package of stories titled “Vaccines Save Lives.” The strongest the collection comes to displaying an anti-needle emotion is a look of slight curiosity on the face of one girl who holds a unicorn as she awaits an injection.

This compels me to register the smallest of complaints against the anti-vaccine movement: Thanks a lot for making us pretend the experience of getting vaccinated is supercomfortable and great! It is not—getting vaccinated is a moment of mild but meaningful discomfort. It is one I endure on behalf of society in order to help uphold the herd immunity of my community, and also on behalf of my own body, which benefits from not getting the flu or any other sundry diseases that I don’t have to remember off hand because vaccines do such a great job of keeping them at bay.

But the fact that anti-vaxxers exist shouldn’t really mean we have to pretend that the physical experience of needles is neutral. Plenty of kids—and adults—don’t feel neutral about shots. I relate to the experience of one Slate writer Seth Stevenson’s 19-month-old, who “can sense something bad is going to happen when the nurse comes at him, and starts squirming,” Stevenson told me. “He cries when the pain of the shot hits.” Because crying in pain when getting jabbed with a needle is a very normal reaction.

I understand the intention behind the photos, and honestly, I won’t hesitate to use one of the more neutral ones to illustrate a story in the future. But we should be really careful about bending the reality around vaccines in order to counter the inaccurate narratives pushed by anti-vaxxers. “Scientists are so terrified of the public’s vaccine hesitancy that they are censoring themselves, playing down undesirable findings and perhaps even avoiding undertaking studies that could show unwanted effects,” science journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer wrote last year in a thoughtful piece about the unintended harms of these actions.
Failing to discuss the downsides of vaccines—which, like anything of this world, can be very good without being flawless—can backfire, with real public health consequences. How much cred do we gain by denying reality, anyway? Everyone knows that getting prodded with a needle hurts a little bit.