The history of vaccines is a story of profound success. Illnesses that killed hundreds of thousands of people every year are nearly eradicated since the development of vaccines. Illnesses that my older colleagues treated routinely are things I will only hear about when they tell their horrific stories of kids not breathing from epiglottitis or becoming paralyzed from polio. Yes, there have been vaccines that were later found to be unsafe, but these have been few and far between compared to the number of life-saving vaccinations that have been developed.
Many people are concerned about the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines’ safety because they use new mRNA technology. However, the biotechnology is not that new. It was being developed for many years before COVID to treat other viruses and was modified for COVID. This is partly why it was able to be created so quickly. Also, most clinical trials involving vaccines take so long to be approved because it takes a long time for sufficient numbers of trial participants to be exposed to the virus it is trying to prevent. However, with COVID being so prevalent, it did not take long for people in the clinical trials to be exposed to the virus and get sufficient numbers faster than typical for vaccine trials.
Another concern is that this is genetic material that will then forever be a part of the body. That is not true. The mRNA is injected into the body. The mRNA enters a cell and produces a protein that is on the COVID virus for the next 2 to 3 days. The body’s immune system then recognizes the protein as foreign and is ready to attack it if it becomes infected with COVID. The mRNA itself is short-lived, never enters the cell’s nucleus where your DNA lives, and completely degrades within a few days. It does not become a permanent part of your DNA.
There is a small risk that the vaccine could have long-term detrimental effects on some people, just as nearly every vaccination can cause serious problems in a small proportion of the population. However, the number of people protected by vaccines is far greater than the number hurt by them. There are few people today who can name anyone who has been harmed by a vaccine, while in the early 20th century, nearly everyone could name someone close to them who died from one of the diseases these vaccines now prevent. I feel it is worth the minuscule risk of a possible long-term effect from receiving the vaccine compared to the benefits the vaccine will hopefully provide.
The chance of me contracting COVID is very high right now. It is estimated that over 60 percent of Americans have at least one significant risk factor for developing complications from COVID. The vaccine will hopefully protect me from getting the virus and any complications as well as protect my family and colleagues from getting it from me. Just as we don’t know the vaccine’s long-term effects, we also don’t know the long-term effects of COVID. For example, shingles does not appear in someone infected with chickenpox until decades later. Who knows what we will see in the decades ahead in people now being infected with COVID? We already see “long-haulers” who have significant chronic problems like shortness of breath and fatigue several months out from their diagnosis.
Vaccinating a large proportion of the population is what is going to allow our economy to recover. Even without shutdowns, people are not going out to public places because of a fear of contracting the virus and then facing the consequences of having COVID causes, from the illness itself to spreading it to others, to taking off work or school for two weeks. A vaccine will give people confidence that they can safely partake in public activities again. That being said, masking and social distancing will still be a thing for another year or so, even with a successful vaccine. It will take time to distribute the vaccine to the general population, determine just how long immunity lasts with the vaccine, and if you get the vaccine, if you are not infectious. Until then, we will need to continue to be careful.
I want to get back to the activities we enjoy doing without having to do a risk assessment beforehand. I want to visit family, watch my kids play sports, and travel. The reality is there will probably be requirements of being vaccinated to participate in certain activities or to travel to certain places regardless of your opinion on mandates.
Medical research has often used minority and underprivileged populations as test subjects without them consenting or fully educated on the risks vs. benefits before agreeing. The rest of us have benefited from this research on our most vulnerable populations and, what’s worse, is that once this research has been approved for the general population, it is oftentimes the case that these vulnerable groups can no longer receive the treatment because of cost or poor access to care. Therefore, if I will be encouraging my patients, many of whom are minorities and/or underprivileged and especially hard hit by this pandemic, it is important that I can say I received the shot and took the risk myself.
I’ve educated myself on the topic using reliable and unbiased sources. I understand that each person has their own unique life experiences that they need to consider and discuss with their physician when deciding on the vaccine. But take the time to think about it and read from reputable sources and experts on the subject. I believe a vaccine is our safest and fastest way out of this pandemic, but people have to be willing to get it.
Julie Swartz is an emergency physician.
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