In defence of the common anti-vaxxer: a doctor in discussion with a friend

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This conversation highlighted two things for me – that, as scientists, we are perhaps too strident and perhaps un-understanding; and that the sociopolitical noise is too loud and is, in fact, counterintuitive to the efforts to protect the world’s citizens. Photo: Ziyaad Douglas/Gallo Images via Getty Images
This conversation highlighted two things for me – that, as scientists, we are perhaps too strident and perhaps un-understanding; and that the sociopolitical noise is too loud and is, in fact, counterintuitive to the efforts to protect the world’s citizens. Photo: Ziyaad Douglas/Gallo Images via Getty Images

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Afew days ago, I had a jolly chat with a close friend who is a non-medical professional. She asked with sincerity if she and her husband should vaccinate. I know her question was genuine because she had been gravely concerned about her husband, who has difficult-to-treat asthma, and was worried that his lungs would not cope well should he be infected with Covid-19.

They are a young family with children aged five and two. Now that the opportunity to vaccinate is here, why would they be undecided and even be willing to put their immune systems to the test when there is a huge step forward in the global effort to end the pandemic and to “breathe again”?

In as much as the Covid-19 pandemic is possibly on its death bed, the endemicity of the disease is far from over and will continue to be fatal.

READ: Omicron vs Delta | Vaccine efficacy reduced from 80% to 33%

This conversation highlighted two things for me – that, as scientists, we are perhaps too strident and perhaps un-understanding; and that the sociopolitical noise is too loud and is, in fact, counterintuitive to the efforts to protect the world’s citizens.

Of course, as a scientist, it is easy for me to cringe at the ridiculous beliefs the uninformed have about diseases, their origins and their treatment strategies. The outrageous theories about magnets and 5G chips being inserted into the bloodstream via a vaccine easily make my blood boil at their glaring ignorance.

This case, however, caused me to pause and reflect that perhaps it is easy for us to understand, but not as simple for the ordinary person.

My friend’s questions centred on five things: blood clots (1) leading to heart attacks (2) and strokes (3); the circulating images of facial deformities (4); and the much-feared interference in our DNA (5), and whether or not we are playing God.

At face value, the first three might appear genuine, while the latter two were obviously ridiculous and were easily debunked, which highlighted for me that not all the questions about vaccines are based on conspiracy theories and/or pseudoscience, something I have written about extensively in the past.

Certainly, most of it is hogwash, to put it mildly, as there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that strokes and heart attacks have increased with the advent of Covid-19 vaccines, even though there have been a few reports of adverse events indirectly linked to the vaccines. Besides, there are evidence-based, successful treatments for clots and heart attacks that have been proven to give people longevity.

The pictures circulating on social media of alien creatures are nothing but fear-mongering strategies by those hell-bent on opposing vaccines and their benefit.

It is understandable that the public might not trust pharmaceutical companies and/or their intentions, as they often make large profits, but medicine and medical science is pure. It is reproducible and clean.

That we might be playing God is always a fascinating concept. However, it is a dim view that only proves how selective we can be as human beings. We already play God in many aspects of our lives, thus to take it one step further would make no difference.

Good medicine already “plays God”, as doctors manipulate the time and manner of death with procedures that include routine interventions, surgery, antibiotics and resuscitation.

READ: Gauteng records significant decline in Covid-19 hospitalisations

Another argument my friend put forward was the common belief that the immunity gained through actual Covid-19 infection is far stronger than the immunity one gets from being vaccinated. This, again, on face value, would nail the argument. However, while it might hold true for most viral infections – but not all – this might not be true for Covid-19 infections.

Covid-19 is too new (on a diseases scale) and too deadly for scientists to conclude that infection confers any long-lasting natural immunity, if any at all, so leaving it to chance would just be dangerous. Families have been left devastated by this pandemic, and to dare the virus would simply be reckless.

It has been proven that vaccines save 2 million to 3 million lives each year. They are among the greatest advances in modern medicine. While it may be true that vaccination is not always as powerful as immunity from infection, it remains true that vaccines are the safest and best way to protect yourself and everyone around you from most viral infections.

You do not have to get infected with a potentially fatal disease for the purposes of gaining stronger immunity. What’s more, it’s much too early to know for sure whether one form of immunity is stronger or longer-lasting than another.

What’s more, it’s much too early to know for sure whether one form of immunity is stronger or longer-lasting than another.

While the jury is still out on which, between natural immunity or vaccine immunity, provides longer-lasting protection against Covid-19, research suggests that, overall, vaccination is the better bet than natural infection for the simple reason that someone doesn’t have to get sick to reap the benefits.

Recovery from Covid-19 results in variable immunity, while immunity from vaccines is much more uniform and predictable.

READ: Universities will probably face student resistance on mandatory vaccination

However, with all that said, I strongly believe that resorting to bullying tactics and threats to compel people to vaccinate is the wrong way of going about it, and borders on the abuse of human rights. When someone has made up their mind that Covid-19 vaccines contain 5G microchips, bullying them to have one is as pointless as trying to convince a flat-earther that a massive amount of water can hold itself up below the globe with the help of some mysterious energy called “gravity”; or forcefully transfusing blood into a Jehovah’s Witness who will always feel guilty or believe that another person’s spirit lives in them.

People must instead be encouraged, guided, taught about vaccines. Teach vaccine benefits, and be transparent about research trials and why they are necessary on such a large scale. Often, people are misinformed and are just going on their gut instinct due to fear and anxiety. They feel they are being made into guinea pigs and therefore feel vulnerable.

They are not peddlers of misinformation or conspiracy theorists, or people who deliberately mislead people about vaccines. They are ordinary people.

Dr Nkwanyana is a freelance medical science writer and an independent medical practitioner 


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