With Covid-19 vaccinations open to children aged 11 and up, it’s more important than ever for reliable information to be accessible to parents hoping to make the best decision for their children. Critically, we need to remember that vaccines are safe, effective, and reliable.
The COVID-19 vaccines available in South Africa are Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. Our first important note is that the vaccines – and this is true of all vaccines – are designed primarily to decrease the severity of disease, and not necessarily to prevent infection. Prevention of infection or the reduction in infection risk is a bonus of vaccines that are already working to protect you from severe disease. If you are vaccinated, you are still at risk of contracting COVID-19 and passing it on, but your risk of severe or long COVID-19 is significantly reduced. However, recent data shows that vaccinated individuals are five times less likely to be infected and produce a lower viral load when infected – decreasing how infectious they are. Overall, if your family is vaccinated, you are less likely to contract and transmit the virus, although the risk is still present. Therefore, it is important to still behave responsibly when vaccinated; you must still socially distance, sanitise, and wear masks. These non-medicinal measures are as important as vaccination in the fight against COVID-19.
Many people are concerned about the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccines, but there is no need to worry. The development processes were streamlined and run efficiently to avoid delay and corner cutting. Traditional vaccine development is linear with each phase of the trial run consecutively and often funded independently. This generates a lot of time spent on administration rather than the science itself. In the Covid-19 vaccine trials, the phases were funded together and ran concurrently to save time, and the manufacturing was done at-risk before and while regulatory approval was being obtained. Another thing to note is that these vaccines were developed in a highly pressurised environment with huge resources – both in terms of finances and personnel – as virtually the entire medical science world was involved in the development process. This is in stark contrast to traditional vaccine development where you have a single team working on it with limited resources and without external pressure. A similar situation was the recent Ebola outbreak of 2018, which also stimulated rapid vaccine development. The technology employed by these vaccines is novel; mRNA vaccines were first proposed in 1990 and have been thoroughly investigated since then, and the viral vector design of the J&J vaccine has been used in licensed vaccines before, namely the 2018 Ebola vaccine.
Vaccines aren’t dissimilar to everyday food choices. The vaccines contain either entirely natural ingredients, or synthetic ingredients that are commonly used in processed food items that most people eat regularly. All the ingredients in the vaccines are ones that your body is likely to have seen before – just because something has a long chemical name doesn’t mean that alarm bells should start ringing. For example, 3-methylbutanal and 2-hydroxy-3-methylethyl butanoate are compounds found in bananas. The other components of the vaccines are buffering salts to balance the pH level and sugars to act as stabilisers, both of which are natural compounds. Following vaccination, all traces of the vaccine are eliminated from your system within three to four weeks, so nothing lingers for long.
Now that we know what goes into a vaccine, what happens to our bodies when we get one? The Covid-19 vaccines have a good and well supported safety profile. After vaccination, you can expect to feel some mild short-term side effects such as fever, chills, body aches, headaches, joint pains, and general flu-like symptoms for one to three days post vaccination. The experience of such side effects is no different from one’s chance of developing side effects after, for example, a normal flu vaccine which most people routinely have every year. Congratulations, your immune system is now kicking into overdrive. The vaccines do not contain an entire SARS-CoV-2 virus, nor the proteins or mRNA required to cause disease, so you cannot get COVID-19 from the vaccine. We can also confidently say that there are no noted long-term effects – between the people who participated in the original vaccine trials and the people vaccinated in the first phases of the vaccine rollouts, we have a considerable number of people around the world who have been vaccinated for well over 18 months with no long-term side effects observed. In terms of severe adverse effects (SAEs), the data shows that the risk associated with SAEs such as anaphylaxis, blood clots, or heart inflammation is minute, whereas the risk of developing these symptoms from COVID-19 infection itself is much greater. For example, roughly 8 per million doses of the J&J vaccine resulted in blood clots (0.000008%), while severe COVID-19 has a blood clot risk of roughly 20%. Heart inflammation observed in young males after the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) occurs at a very low rate of roughly 20 per million doses administered (0.00002%). In the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine trials for children aged 11-17 in the U.S.A, there were no incidences of SAEs in a cohort of almost 5000 children.
The presence of underlying health conditions such as autoimmune disorders, immunosuppressed or immunocompromised states, asthma, pregnancy, heart conditions, or allergies unrelated to vaccines or injectable medications are not contraindications of the COVID-19 vaccination. Times when it may be safer to avoid the vaccine include having a known allergy to a vaccine ingredient, a history of allergy to vaccines specifically, or experience of an SAE after your first dose. This safety data has been continuously updated as more and more people are vaccinated. As of 17 November 2021, 3.23 billion people have been vaccinated globally. If the vaccines were dangerous and were commonly causing SAEs, we would know about it. We can confidently say that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.
Credible sources are our number one place to find vaccine information. Sources that rely heavily on anecdotal evidence rather than empirical evidence, or which misrepresent data and statistics, or use highly emotive language should be avoided. Rather, stick to trusted institutions like the WHO, CDC, NICD, university sites such as Oxford, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, etc, and mainstream media that cites sources like these. To give an example of how statistics can be misrepresented, let’s look at the following hypothetical situation: a village of 100 people has 99 vaccinated people and one unvaccinated person. Two people get COVID-19, the unvaccinated person and one other. Some would report that “50% of COVID-19 cases occurred in the vaccinated people,” but this is a misrepresentation. Rather, 100% of the unvaccinated people got COVID-19 and only 1% of the vaccinated people got COVID-19. Another red flag is stating correlations as causations. To give a silly example, we are the only planet in our solar system that has death, and we are also the only one with birds, but birds aren’t the reason people die on Earth (mostly, we won’t talk about geese).
The crux of the matter is this: why do we vaccinate our families? The answer is simple: we want to protect our family members, our children and those around them. While children are statistically less affected by severe COVID-19, they do contribute to the spread of the virus to more vulnerable people and can be susceptible to severe and/or long COVID-19. The risks of COVID-19 might not be as bad for children as they are for older family members, but they are far greater than the minimal risks of vaccination – which come with a host of benefits for your family, unlike COVID-19.