The new face on the block when it comes to rockstar epidemiologists says its time to vaccinate or bust

An unexpected outcome of the pandemic has been catapulting New Zealand’s stable of epidemiologists and public health officials into public awareness, if not outright fame.

Not too many Kiwis would be able to name the Director-General of Public Health two years ago, but now Dr Ashley Bloomfield’s face is emblazoned on mugs and memes.

Epidemiologist Michael Baker and microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles have become familiar faces of the public health response, and go-to figures to help the media explain the ins and outs of the virus and the vaccine to the public.

One of the newer voices on New Zealand’s war on Covid is Dr Rod Jackson, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Auckland, who earned his place in the average Kiwi’s mental rolodex of public health experts a few weeks ago when he appeared on Newshub Nation wearing a T-shirt of his own design.

During most of his interview, the predictable message ‘vax a nation’ adorned his chest – but at the end he spun around and showed the country the unique turn of phrase he brings to public health, with ‘Don’t be a dick, get the prick!’ across his back.

Jackson said the shirt was a last-minute idea.

“I was having dinner with my son and his partner, and someone suggested it,” he said. First he looked into T-shirt printing businesses, but they all forecast long wait times, when he needed it for his Saturday morning appearance on TV3.

Then the night before he got a hold of a research fellow at the university whose wife had recently started a home business printing shirts, and within 12 hours he was wearing his message proudly on national television.

Dr Rod Jackson in his ‘vax a nation’ shirt. Photo: Supplied

But while he has a sense of humour about his work, he says the threat facing New Zealand is dead serious.

“People still have no idea,” he said. “Just look at Ireland with its similar population and way of life – they’ve had 5000 deaths.”

He believes our successful response to the first wave of the virus has left many people blasé about the risks.

“The biggest thing that’s driven vaccination rates overseas has been people being terrified,” he said. “Look at Canberra, where 98 percent of people have had their first jab. That was driven by them having 1200 cases, which would be like if New Zealand had 15,000 cases.”

He acknowledges the fine line between fear-mongering and being realistic, and gets accusations of the former in his inbox.

“I’m not trying to scare people,” he said. “But you just have to look elsewhere to see how it is and get real. I get these emails saying you are going on about doom and gloom when we’ve only had 27 deaths – they have no idea.”

And as has been professed ad infinitum from the Beehive theatrette – now is a crucial time, especially for getting vaccination rates up.

“Now is the time to pull out all the stops,” Jackson said. “Otherwise we are on our way to a public health catastrophe.”

That’s part of the reason he’s been speaking up. Last year, he took on more of a supporting role as fellow public health experts like Dr Baker communicated the details of the elimination strategy. Jackson’s focus is vaccination.

“At the beginning, I didn’t want to confuse or disrupt the message,” he said. “But once we got into this stage of vaccination, I saw the importance of sharing the load.”

With the highly-infectious nature of Delta, Jackson sees vaccination as the only way New Zealand can get our hands on an okay outcome. He’s a firm believer in the jab, and wants to see more mandates.

“Education was an obvious second group after health workers,” he said. “Especially as kids can’t get vaccinated at this point. The next obvious places to have mandates would be police and then people who work in supermarkets – what a place to spread Covid.”

He believes getting tough on vaccines is the only way to make sure there isn’t a vulnerable segment of the population the disease can still rip through while everyone else gets on with their lives.

“People talk about getting to 90 percent vaccination, but that still leaves a whole 10 percent who will be the hardest to reach and the most vulnerable,” he said. “That’s why I push for 95 percent. At that point, our hospitals would be in a much better position to help.”

And if that final 5 percent consists of the stalwart vaccine sceptics who would strongly resist getting the jab, getting to 95 percent means convincing the thousands who sit on the fence or who have unanswered concerns about it.

A common worry among the vaccine-hesitant is that the urgent nature of the vaccine’s production means there is no published data on whether or not it has long-term effects.

Jackson believes if people understood how this particular vaccine worked more clearly, these fears may be assuaged.

As opposed to being injected with a live form of the disease, the Pfizer mRNA vaccine is instead something like a message to your immune system.

“It’s like Mission: Impossible, right?” Jackson said. “Once your body reads it, [the message] self-destructs.”

He said the vaccine is a fragment of RNA which enters the body and tells certain protector cells to make spikes like those found on the coronavirus itself. Then the immune system is able to identify and learn to kill the virus, without the risk of dealing with the virus itself.

Jackson said the bigger worry is that the vaccine is too fragile – hence the rigorous refrigeration needs and the capsule of fat it must enter the bloodstream in.

“RNA messages by their very nature don’t hang around in the cell for very long,” he said. “If too many did, the cell would get confused. With the vaccine, it has totally dissolved within 48 hours – often within two.”

Jackson hopes the weekend’s vaccine drive and telethon in Auckland will see bumper numbers. Whatever it takes, the vast majority of New Zealanders will need to get the jab before we can turn the page on the pandemic.

He predicts a future where a vaccinated population is affected by Covid much like the flu.

“It still kills 500 people a year, but most people get it mildly,” he said. “The vaccine pretty clearly turns Delta into a disease like that – it reduces the severity of the virus tenfold.”

However, while it is well-documented that the vaccine makes the disease less serious for people who get it, there are still some questions about how exactly it will affect its ability to spread.

“We still haven’t had enough time to know how much it will reduce the R number,” he said. “In the short term it does have an effect. It won’t necessarily stop you getting infected, but it will slow it down.”

Jackson is a good talker – deftly jumping from one topic to another over the course of an hour. And right now he’s the man of the hour for many corners of the media.

“I’ve had three calls from media while we were chatting,” he said before hanging up. “I hope everything I said made sense to you.”

But it seems that most of his message can be summarised in one pithy and brief sentiment, that he already communicated to us via his fashion choice that Saturday morning at the end of September – “Don’t be a dick, get the prick!”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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