What exactly is a vaccine? Remember that old saying, “Take the hair of the dog that bit you” – that was advice to get rid of a hangover. The “dog that bit you” was the alcohol you drank too much of. The cure or the “hair” was a bit more alcohol. Turns out that doesn’t really work so well for a hangover. But such reasoning does work in the case of vaccines.
A vaccine, also known as immunization or inoculation, takes a little bit of the virus or bacteria that causes a particular illness, weakens it, and puts it into a form that can be injected, inhaled through your nose, or swallowed (as in the case of the polio vaccine, which some may remember). Once this substance is in your body, a normal immune system recognizes it as an invader and begins to produce antibodies and different types of disease fighting white blood cells to kill or weaken it when you are exposed to the actual virus or bacteria. It’s sort of like an imitation infection. The vaccine contains a weaker form of the bacteria or virus, so it cannot make you sick.
Why is there so much controversy about vaccines? One bad article in a scientific journal is all it takes to ruin a good thing. The article from 1999 said autism was associated with vaccines. It was rescinded by the journal that published it (The Lancet) after 12 years of being out there when it was discovered that the author had used faulty research. Unfortunately, so many people believe it, that it is hard to get them to understand that it was disinformation. There have been many, many more articles supporting the fact that vaccines DON’T cause autism, but it’s hard to get people to change their minds once they are made up – but that won’t keep me from trying!
When I was in practice, very often patients would say they didn’t want a flu vaccine because they were convinced it would give them the flu. Not true. For one, many people mistake the common cold for the flu – the flu is much worse (and COVID is even worse), so they probably got a cold after their flu shot and they attributed it to the shot. The saying about flu is, on day one, you think you’re going to die. On day two, you wish you would. That’s how awful flu can be. So, many people have never really had the flu, because if they had, they would be begging for a vaccine to keep them from getting it again.
Interestingly, the same folks who don’t want a flu shot wouldn’t hesitate if I asked them if they wanted a tetanus shot. Everyone wants a tetanus shot, right? By the same reasoning, shouldn’t they be afraid of getting tetanus from the vaccine? I guess they realized that they would not get tetanus if they got a tetanus shot. Most of us have never seen anyone with tetanus. Why is that? Because most of us were vaccinated against it! When was the last time you saw someone with polio? Did you say never? That’s right, because today’s elders were vaccinated as children, so we don’t see polio in the US. You likely don’t know anyone who has had measles, German measles, or mumps if you were born after 1971 when the MMR vaccine was first developed. If you do know someone who has had these diseases, it’s very likely because they were not vaccinated.
So, should you get the COVID-19 vaccine? Many people are worried that the vaccine was produced too quickly and, therefore, won’t be safe. Normally, vaccine creation takes about ten years to complete. But there were several factors during this pandemic that made it possible to get a safe vaccine out quickly. For one, government funds were made readily available because, after all, this is a pandemic with 510,000 people already dead. There was also already some scientific data about the family of viruses of which COVID is a member, so vaccine production wasn’t starting from scratch. In a display of solidarity, humans taking care of humans, there were enough volunteers to get the vaccine in clinical trials in order to see if it works. Having enough volunteers is often not the case. Technology is better and faster now in many ways. The usual bureaucratic holdups were put on hold so that the approvals could get through faster. Faster, not less safely.
Sound too good to be true? There are some downsides to all vaccines. None of them are 100% effective – not MMR, not Shingles vaccine, not COVID. Since vaccines are revving up your immune system, it will react slightly to the substance that has been injected. These symptoms can include low grade fever, chills, body aches, headache, nausea, and soreness at the injection site, but these are usually short-lived effects.
Sometimes, rarely, the vaccine will not protect you at all. For example, I had Hepatitis B vaccine with no evidence (blood test) that it was protecting me, so I got another series. Still nothing. Sometimes that happens, but not usually. Yes, you hear about people having allergic reactions, but that can happen with any vaccine, medicine, or food you take in at any point in your life. You are not protected the moment you receive your injection – it will take about two weeks for your body to react as much as it can. There is nothing perfect in this world, but you probably already knew that.
Why get the vaccine? The more people who cannot get sick from COVID, the fewer people who can spread it. Is it possible that you can still spread the disease after you’ve been vaccinated? Maybe, but, at this point, no one knows for sure. Could there be long term effects? Possibly, but we know there are long term effects from COVID infection, so it is a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. The research will go on to see the outcomes of a population being immunized.
At the time of this writing, as more people get vaccinated, the number of cases is coming down each day. We still need to be cautious, using masks and social distancing, but there is now great hope that this thing is coming to a place where we can all live with it and begin to dream in serious terms about living life the way we used to. If you are reading this, you are one of the fortunate ones who has not died from the disease. We all have an obligation as citizens of this great planet to do what we can to protect each other – this is not about us as individuals, but as a community. Our patience will pay off, I promise, so please continue to stay strong and stay healthy.
~ Norma Stephens Hannigan is a Doctor of Nursing Practice who recently retired after a 43-year career providing direct care and teaching future nurses and nurse practitioners. Dr. Norma has treated many truck drivers at the various clinics she has worked. She currently writes for 10-4 from her home in Newburgh, NY.