Doctor on overcoming Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy: ‘We just don’t know who will succumb to this virus’

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  • Covid vaccine scepticism is not uncommon among healthcare workers.
  • Dr Aaseema Mugjenkar, a Cape Town GP, was initially very hesitant to get vaccinated due to the vaccine being new.
  • After doing her research she, however, decided to get vaccinated and encourages others to do the same.

Vaccine hesitancy poses a threat to ending the Covid-19 pandemic, and this reluctance isn’t only seen among the general public. Multiple surveys globally have revealed that healthcare workers (HCWs), including doctors, have concerns about vaccine safety, side effects, and efficacy.

For months, Dr Aaseema Mugjenkar (32), a general practitioner (GP) in private practice in Cape Town, had been meticulously following Covid protocols, including physical distancing, wearing her face mask, and washing her hands. But when it was announced that South Africa’s vaccination programme would begin with its healthcare workers, she felt apprehensive about getting jabbed. 

“I was scared – it was a new vaccine and it hadn’t been around for a very long time, and I asked myself: ‘How safe is it?’” she told Health24.

“Generally, I’m not an ill person, so my concern was whether taking the vaccine would not perhaps trigger some illness or autoimmune disease, or something else,” she said.

That wasn’t the only concern Mugjenkar had at the time. “I was breastfeeding, and there was no talk at that stage as to whether or not it was safe while breastfeeding.”

Pregnant and breastfeeding women were excluded in the initial Covid-19 vaccine trials – something some researchers have called a “paradox”, given that pregnant women are more likely to develop Covid complications than non-pregnant individuals.

But growing evidence indicates that the vaccines are safe and effective in this group. One study also found that vaccinated breastfeeding women may pass on Covid antibodies to their babies.

'I was very hesitant'

“When the AstraZeneca vaccine came to South Africa, I was very hesitant, almost to the point where I decided I would not take it yet.”

But then the news broke in March 2021 that South Africa would sell its one million doses to the African Union, after it was found that it wasn’t effective against the mild infection caused by the Beta variant that was dominating infections at the time. 

“I felt a bit relieved because I thought, ‘Now we have some more time to think about and follow the effects of the vaccine,’” she said. But this relief was short-lived.

“Then, all of a sudden, we found out that a new batch of the Johnson and Johnson (J&J) vaccine arrived, and that we, healthcare workers, were going to be part of the Sisonke trial and would be the first to get it as part of the rollout process.”

GPs in private practice received an e-mail, alerting them to two available dates to get vaccinated. Mugjenkar had already registered before receiving that email, despite being uncertain about whether she would get inoculated.

“I went through the process of getting an appointment date, in case I changed my mind. And then, literally a week before I got my vaccine in February, I started reading a bit more on it – how exactly the vaccine works, the technology behind it, and if there was any possibility it could pass through breastmilk,” and her questions were all answered.

Trusting the science

“Even though there were no trials (on pregnant or breastfeeding people), it was almost scientifically impossible for the vaccines to pass through breastmilk, just like medication generally doesn’t always, or very little amounts, pass through breastmilk. That made me feel a bit more at ease, so I decided to go ahead and take the vaccine,” said Mugjenkar.

Another deciding factor for her was that there were only two dates available. “So if I did not go on either of those Sundays, my concern was that I’d miss the boat and I wouldn’t get the opportunity to get vaccinated again,” she said.

Vaccine the only hope

“With Covid being so draining, we all want this pandemic to be over,” said Mugjenkar. “And the vaccine was the only thing that brought hope to end it, provided that we have enough people that vaccinate,” she continued.

Losing close family friends to Covid

Mugjenkar knew the stats on Covid case numbers and death rates, and also had close family friends who died due to Covid infection. “I don’t think there is anyone that does not know of someone who’s gotten Covid, or actually lost someone to the disease, considering the high infection rate and with South Africa being in the third wave,” she said.

Still much uncertainty about the virus

Although medical staff have been dealing with the effects of the virus for more than a year, it doesn’t become any less scary.

“I was most definitely, and am still scared every single day when I go into the workplace, of contracting Covid. And my fear stems from the uncertainty of this virus. We just don’t know who will succumb to this virus and who will not,” said Mugjenkar.

She added: “We have patients that do so well, and then we have patients who don’t. In the past two waves, we were more inclined to think that those with comorbidities were at higher risk of severe disease and death, but with the Delta variant, we’re finding that there are people with no comorbidities that are really struggling, and that are losing their lives to Covid.”

There are multiple factors of uncertainty when it comes to the virus, she said. “There are factors that we might not even be aware of at this stage, because it’s still a new virus, and it’s still being researched. 

“My fear is, if I get it, how will it affect me? And if I contract the virus, I fear bringing it home to my family. Because I don’t know how it would affect them – my parents, husband, and my children.”

Putting things into context

Mugjenkarstressed that with any medication, treatment, or vaccine, there will always be concerns of safety and efficacy.

“Any tablet that’s on the market today has the possibility of side effects. If we give a specific tablet to 100 people, for example, 95 of them might have no side effects to that tablet, while four may have some mild side effects, and one of the 100 people may develop a very rare, severe side effect. 

“As doctors, when we prescribe medication to our patients, we always tell them that there’s a possibility of adverse effects, but the possibility is low. And when we prescribe something, the benefit of the medication – or in this case, the vaccine – has to outweigh the risks of any adverse effects,” said Mugjenkar.

With all the uncertainties around how and why the Covid virus affects people so differently, vaccination is all the more important. “Getting vaccinated is a form of protection because your body will then already have its antibodies against the virus, so if you do get infected, you’ve got your army of antibodies waiting to fight it,” said Mugjenkar.

‘We are all tired’

“We are all tired of this pandemic,” said Mugjenkar. “We are drained, and not just the healthcare workers. Everyone is drained. Covid has not just been a physical illness. Because it’s been around us for so long, it has affected us mentally and psychologically every day. And the only way we can fight against it is to fight together by continuing to follow protocols, and to vaccinate.” 

We need to understand the science behind how a vaccine works and why it cannot physically give one the actual virus, she said. “If we understand the science behind the vaccine, we will be more comfortable taking the vaccine,” said Mugjenkar. She further iterated the importance of avoiding misinformation on social media that is not backed up by evidence.

Turning to credible sources

“There’s a lot of misinformation circulating on social media at the moment. And this misinformation is obviously deliberately passed around with the intent of actually convincing people not to take the vaccine. What these people sometimes do is take out a two-minute snippet from an hour-long interview, and forward it to others without any context. 

“They use these bits of information to aid in convincing you against the vaccine. We need to be very wary about the misinformation out there. We should also trust our healthcare professionals. If you want advice, instead of going to Dr Google, ask your closest healthcare professional, or your GP, or anyone who has knowledge regarding the vaccines to explain it to you,” she said.

*For more Covid-19 research, science and news, click here. You can also sign up for our Daily Dose newsletter here.

READ | 'Covid was an awful experience': Once vaccine hesitant, one woman now eagerly awaits her second jab

READ | Just the facts: Experts take on inaccurate claims in top doctor's Covid-19 vaccine video

READ | How years of vaccine groundwork allowed the Covid-19 jabs to be developed in under a year

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