I received my first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine last week. The second dose will be administered early next month.
This is one of four vaccines that have, so far, been approved for prevention of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), better known as Covid-19, in Canada.
The other three Covid-19 vaccines that have been approved for use in Canada are from Moderna, AstraZeneca-Oxford and Johnson & Johnson.
My decision to get the vaccine was not a spur-of-the-moment action or simply because “everybody is getting it.” It was based on thorough reading of the scientific literature on the new coronavirus that has, so far, claimed the lives of nearly 2.6 million people worldwide in just more than one year, and the evidence-based information we have about the various vaccines that have been developed as one of the most effective measures against this virus.
The approved vaccines are the work of highly educated and dedicated professionals who have applied real science to produce substances that have shown great promise in the struggle against this virus. The approval processes have been based on evidence, not opinions, hearsay or gossip that inform the fearmongering that populates social media.
Whereas every effective vaccine and medicine has side effects, the level of confidence in its benefit compared to risk of significant harm to the recipient is always a major consideration before it is approved for human use.
The conspiracy theorists and other mischief makers who relish opportunities to sow distrust should not distract people from seeking evidence-based information and advice from their medical doctors and other health professionals in order to make fully informed decisions.
Clearly, we find ourselves in a unique situation where the worldwide pandemic has changed the normal way of vaccine development. In the past, it took anywhere between four and 15 years, even longer, to develop safe, effective and affordable vaccines for human use.
The Covid-19 vaccines have taken less than a year to move from bench research to clinical use. Understandably, this speed of development is one of the sources of anxiety about the vaccines.
It is obviously too early for anyone to be certain about the long-term efficacy and safety of the vaccines. What we know, so far, is very encouraging.
The reports show that the early side effects are mild and mostly inconsequential. Obviously, individuals with allergy to one or several ingredients in the vaccine can have serious allergic reactions. This is true of any vaccine and medicine.
The vaccine manufacturers and the agencies in charge of our health are required by law to closely monitor details about these products, especially any adverse events that occur following administration of the vaccines. Our knowledge about the vaccines will increase with time and recommendations may change to ensure maximum benefit and minimal risk to recipients and the whole community.
Judging from the posts doing the rounds on social media and other outlets, there is massive interest in these vaccines. However, a lot of comments and purported reports about the vaccines are without merit whatsoever.
Unfortunately, simplifications, speculations, evidence-free personal opinions and outright lies appear to enjoy positive interest and reception than hard, unadulterated science.
Those who want to make informed decisions or to offer comment about these vaccines have an obligation to read evidence-based literature in peer-reviewed journals. There are no short-cuts. However, we know enough already to be confident in endorsing the vaccines that have undergone rigorous scrutiny before approval.
Whether or not mass immunisation is appropriate in a given community such as Uganda, is not something about which I am in position to comment.
That is a decision that must be made by the Ministry of Health after thorough review of standard epidemiological and public health considerations, the country’s health care priorities, and the economics of the pandemic and its preventive measures.
However, I should note if I were in Uganda, I would be among the first in the queue to get my Covid-19 vaccine.
My decision is made easy by my professional background and experience with properly approved vaccines that have arrested the devastation wrought on humanity by other viruses and bacteria.
There is no doubt that vaccines have been one of humanity’s top five discoveries and inventions since recorded history.
One example will do.
Our parents and the generations before them lived in great fear of a worldwide infectious disease called smallpox.
This killer and disfiguring disease, whose presence among various societies continents apart was recorded thousands of years ago, appears to have benefited from extensive human travel.
It was not until 1959 that the World Health Organisation embarked on a global campaign to rid the world of smallpox.
I was an early recipient of the vaccine, administered to me via an injection in my very young and tiny left arm, evidence of which remains as a three-centimetre grey scar that was the only long-term side effect I had.
It was an inconsequential price to pay for a disease that was killing 30 per cent of its victims and leaving the majority of survivors with ugly scars all over their bodies, including their faces. Some became permanently blind.
Initial challenges hindered efforts at mass smallpox vaccination. Globally, about two million people continued to die annually from smallpox in the early 1960s.
However, from 1967 onwards, an intensified worldwide programme wrestled the disease to the ground. The last reported case of naturally acquired smallpox occurred in October 1977. The patient was 23-year-old Ali Maow Maalin, a Somali cook from Merca, Somalia.
The last person to die of “artificially” acquired smallpox was Janet Parker, a 40-year-old medical photographer at the University of Birmingham Medical School in England, who was believed to have picked up a virus that had originated in a microbiology laboratory in the building where she worked.
Ms Parker’s infection was a result of the laboratory’s failure to maintain WHO safety standards. This finding prompted Prof Henry Bedson, the head of the Department of Medical Microbiology at Birmingham Medical School, to commit suicide on September 6, 1978, five days before Ms Parker died.
Happily, on May 8, 1980, the 33rd World Health Assembly, meeting in Geneva, declared the total global eradication of smallpox. It was a very happy moment that one hopes shall, one day, be said of Covid-19.
But first, we must debunk the very noisy traffic of misinformation and disinformation about vaccines that is generally spread by people who do not respect science.