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Mark Radcliffe

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Is tattooing vaccines into the skin the way forward?

So we’re waiting for a bus. Me and a woman I don’t know. Sharing an awkward silence. She seems uncomfortable. I think ‘I wonder how I can help with that?’ I could walk on a stop and risk missing the bus but that seems a bit extreme. I could say something polite although I’m rubbish at small talk. I could smile a slightly buffoonish smile, thus demonstrating myself to be more lummox than predator, or maybe whistle a little tune? Something by Erasure perhaps? That should put her at her ease.

And then I think ‘hang on, I’m nice’. I may be quite large with limited hair and that combination carries with it a set of stereotypical expectations. But I have learnt through nursing how to soften those. The way I walk, the way I dress. The blusher. Why am I anxious about how I may or may not be making this person feel? I think she should let go of her prejudices. I’m just sitting here, waiting for a bus. And then she speaks.

‘Do you have any tattoos?’


‘Do you have any tattoos?’

‘Yes, yes, I do. Er, do you?’


There is a pause before I say: ‘I think it’s good that we know this about each other.’

We then have a nice chat. Just goes to show I think, people with tattoos are friendlier than others. I mean I’m not going to call it research or anything – but still.

And research from Germany supports my ‘tattoos are good things’ position by suggesting that they could be the ideal way of delivering vaccines into the body. Apparently research on mice showed that by tattooing the vaccine ‘into’ the skin it produced 16 times more antibodies than an injection. These are healthy and cool-looking mice. One mouse had a dragon tattooed on his back for example; it looks a bit like a moth but, that aside, the merging of art and science in the form of vaccinating mice could possibly win both a Nobel and Turner prize.

More pertinently if this ‘science’ becomes strong enough to support vaccination via tattoo, will the Department of Health find itself recommending tattoos as part of a public-health initiative? You wander down to your general practice and say to the nurse: ‘I’ll have a flu jab and a large koi carp on my back please.’ It’s going to add a bit to appointment times but if we have a flu-free winter and a lot of interesting body art, I think most over-65s will consider it worth the wait.

I’m all in favour of it. It is in my view both healthy and pretty. Of course I, along with the woman at the bus stop, may be in a minority here. Indeed, relatively few people, despite the recent fashion, have or want tattoos. And not many of them are likely to be swayed by the idea of increased immunisation either. Which makes you wonder – how did they find out that tattooing people is a good way of boosting the effectiveness of vaccines? And why?

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