On Nov. 8, 2018, Christine Figgener published an editorial in Nature about an unusual experience (Figgener C. "What I Learnt Pulling a Straw Out of a Turtle’s Nose," Nature. 2018 Nov;563(7730):157.).
Figgener is a conservationist, currently pursuing her PhD on migration patterns of the olive ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea). She works mostly in isolation doing research that is “dirty and smelly, full of long hours and unkempt hair.” She was, according to her, the least likely person to become a celebrity. But after a video that she made went viral, that’s exactly what she became.
Three years ago, while collecting data for her PhD thesis off the coast of Costa Rica, Figgener came upon a sea turtle in distress. Lodged in the turtle’s nose was a 10-cm long plastic straw. Figgener made a video of her pulling the straw out of the turtle’s nose. The straw had become encrusted, so the extraction caused some bleeding. After she uploaded her video of the procedure, 33 million people saw it.
Although it wasn’t her intention, Figgener’s video became a centerpiece for plastic-free campaigns. Companies including Alaska Airlines, Disney, and Starbucks announced programs to phase out plastic straws. Seattle and San Francisco created legislation to ban or limit them. And, last month, the European Union moved to prohibit several single-use plastic items, like plates and cutlery. Time magazine named Figgener a 2018 Next Generation Leader.
Although it wasn’t her intention, Figgener had inspired a movement.
For those of use involved in vaccine advocacy, perhaps the challenge — in addition to providing reliable, up-to-date, and accurate scientific information — would be to find a way to counter unfounded fears with a dramatic, undeniable image. What could that be?