Thursday, December 17, 2020

We need to be honest about the side-effects of COVID vaccines

We now have one COVID-19 vaccine being already administered, with a second one soon to follow. The challenge now is to get them to as many people as possible. With the side-effects from the vaccine receiving more and more attention (including viral fake news reports), that could become a problem.

Although an estimated 71% of people say they are likely to get the vaccine (this from an ongoing American survey), which is actually better than a couple of months earlier, that still leaves 27% who say they will probably or definitely never take it, a percentage that rises to 33% among Black people (why?) and, even more worrying, 33% among essential workers, and an astounding 29% among healthcare workers.

It doesn't help that there are already various strains of misinformation and conspiracy theories doing the rounds of social media - that the vaccine contains a nefarious microchip, that it contains fecal tissue, that it is a mild dose of the actual virus, that it will alter our DNA, that a nurse in Alabama died from taking the vaccine. But the biggest single reason that people are hesitant to receive the virus is the fear of side-effects.

And, unfortunately, there ARE side-effects: the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine causes fatigue in 59% of recipients, headaches in 52%, muscle pain in 37%, chills in 35%, and joint pain in 22%; the Moderna vaccine can be expected to cause fatigue in 68% of recipients, headaches in 63%, aches and pains in 60%, chills in 43%, and fever in 16%. These are not insignificant side-effects, and may even be mistaken for the symptoms of the virus itself, although none of the vaccines being developed make use of the actual virus, either in a live or dead form. 

In reality, side-effects are to be expected: they are a sign that the individual's immune system is being activated against the virus, but that may not allay some people's fears. The side-effects usually pass quickly - gone in a day or two - but they will be enough to seriously deter some people. A few more severe anaphylactic reactions have also been noted thus far: two in Britain (who already suffered from severe allergies) and one in Alaska (who did not). These too will further worry fence-sitters. 

It's hard to know how to counter these fears. I think all we can do is to be up-front and proactive, educate people honestly, and stress that the repercussions of not taking the vaccine (both for individuals, and for society as a whole) are way worse than a few chill and aches.

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