by Candice Lim
“Mommy, I don’t wanna take the shot,” whimpered the little girl in my clinic this morning. She was dressed all in pink and didn’t look more than five years old.
“Please be a good girl, Leila. It’s not gonna hurt,” coaxed her mother. She looked tired and had two black circles under her baggy eyes. Like the rest of the patients milling in the waiting room, she had come with her daughter to get her flu shot.
I sat down next to Leila and took her hand. She looked at me with her two big eyes. “Hello, my name’s Doctor Hershey. What’s your name?”
“Leila.” She took my hand hesitantly and quickly let go.
“Nice to meet you, Leila. Now, can you tell me what’s happening?”
Leila looked around her for a while, then stared at her feet. “There’s a new virus out there and it’s killed many people…” She paused, then continued. “Daddy’s one of them.”
I nodded and swallowed the lump in my throat. The virus was strong and had claimed more lives than scientists had predicted it would. The nation was in a panic. When the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gave the green light for the new vaccine, everybody started to queue up at the nearest clinics to get their shots. “Do you know what that means?”
“It means we’re gonna die.”
“No, Leila.” I took her hands and smiled at her. “You’re not going to die.”
“Then… then, why do we have to take the shots?”
“We’re going to make you a superhero.”
“A superhero?” Leila’s eyes lit up as she grinned, baring her two missing front teeth. It’s been a while since I saw a smile, especially from a child.
I nodded. “Yes, the shot will give you the superpower to protect yourself and others who can’t t have their own injection against the virus.”
“But.” Leila turned to look at Mommy. “Mommy told me the shot contains viruses. I don’t wanna have viruses in my body.”
“Yes, they are, but do you know what they do?”
Leila shook her head.
“These viruses are inactivated, meaning they cannot make copies of themselves or cause harm to your body. They’re safe. There’s nothing to worry about. Your body will still see them as a threat and when it does, it will produce antibodies to attack them. Then your body will remember the virus. If you happen to come into contact with the flu, your body will immediately recognise the same virus and produce the antibodies to fight them. This is called ‘active immunity’ [1-2].”
“Cool!” exclaimed the little girl. “That means I’m invincible!”
“Against the flu virus, yes.”
“But, how can I protect others?”
“Look, Leila. You’re a strong and healthy girl. Your body’s strong enough to withstand the vaccine. But, what about the newborns, pregnant women, and those with life-threatening illnesses?”
“They cannot be vaccinated?” Leila frowned.
I shook my head. “Their bodies cannot resist even the inactivated viruses. They’ll have to depend on the people around them to be their human shield. If no one has the immunity, the flu can spread around and get to them easily. But when most people get their shots, there’s little chance for an outbreak. In this way, the vulnerable ones are protected from the disease. This is called ‘herd’ or ‘community immunity’ [3-4].”
Leila bit her lip and bent her head. “It’s gonna hurt a lot, right?”
“Well, this is the test you have to go through to become a true superhero. Do you think you’re brave enough to be a superhero?”
Leila stared at me for a couple of seconds and nodded confidently. “Yes, I am. I can do this!”
I turned to the mother as she ran her hand over her daughter’s hair. “You’re so lucky, ma’am. You have a brave daughter. I’m sure she’s going to be a great superhero.”
“Thank you so much, Doctor. Leila was so worried when I told her we’re going to get our flu shots,” said Leila’s mother thankfully.
“Don’t mention it, ma’am. That’s our job.”
“I can’t believe it. Superheroes are real!” Leila smiled brightly at her mother. “I’ve always thought they were only in the movies.”
“They are. They just fight a different kind of bad guy. Many people anticipate the day Science can make them superheroes. They don’t know that day came a long time ago.” Removing the syringe from the metal tray and pushing the air out, I beamed at the little girl. Leila and her mother looked so much happier and confident than when they first came in. “So, Leila, are you ready to receive your superpower?”
About the author
CANDICE LIM WAN CHI is a science writer by day and a science fiction and fantasy (SFF) novelist by night. Graduated with a biotech degree, her research interests lie in genetics, tissue culture, transgenesis, and of course cyborgs, androids, blasters, and spaceships. She’s working to publish her SFF trilogies “Outbreak” and “Hell Break” under pseudonym James Levin. She hopes to pursue an entrepreneurial venture in science. Find out more about Candice by visiting her Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/candistic/
This article first appeared in the Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 12. Check out other articles in Issue 12 by downloading the PDF version for free here: Scientific Malaysian Magazine Issue 12 (PDF version)
 Burton, D. R. (2002). Antibodies, viruses and vaccines. Nature Reviews Immunology, 2(9), 706-713.
 Pulendran, B., & Ahmed, R. (2011). Immunological mechanisms of vaccination. Nature Immunology, 12(6), 509–517.
 Fine, P., Eames, K., & Heymann, D. L. (2011). “Herd immunity”: A rough guide. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 52(7), 911-916.
 Valleron, A. J. (2012). Can the modeling of herd immunity help design influenza immunization policy?. Preventive Medicine, 55(1), 78-79.