Facts vs fiction: Everything you need to know about vaccines and their safety

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The department of health aims to vaccinate around 40 million people against the coronavirus by the end 2021. (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)
The department of health aims to vaccinate around 40 million people against the coronavirus by the end 2021. (Photo: Getty Images/Gallo Images)

It's the world’s best hope of beating a virus that killed two million people, infected  90 million and brought mayhem and misery to a shell-shocked planet. Yet many have indicated they won’t accept the vaccine against Covid-19. 

Fears abound: it was developed too fast. It could make me sick. Then there are the conspiracy theories – including one that a microchip could be inserted in your body with the jab that will allow Microsoft founder Bill Gates to track you. 

It’s simply not true, of course – but authorities face an uphill battle getting people to believe the vaccine is safe. Only about half (53%) of South Africans indicated they would have the vaccine when it becomes available here, a recent Ipsos survey found.

All the misinformation out there is fuelling the fear, says Professor Rose Burnett, head of the South African Vaccination and Immunisation Centre in the Department of Virology at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Pretoria North.

“Indiscriminate use of social media has made misleading information and conspiracy theories about Covid-19 go viral,” she adds. “The public is overwhelmed by anxiety and uncertainty and don’t know who to trust.”

The truth is without vaccines, diseases such as smallpox and polio would kill and affect millions. Measles, mumps and rubella would still be major illnesses.

And without a vaccine to combat Covid-19, it will be years before the world is anywhere near a semblance of normality. Here’s more about this lifesaving jab.

HOW DO VACCINES WORK?

They contain weakened or inactive parts of a germ that’s introduced into your body, usually by an injection. Your immune system reacts to the vaccine by making antibodies. The antibodies destroy the weakened vaccine germs just as they would the disease itself.

They stay in your body, waking up to give you instant immunity if you are exposed to the real germ.

Simply put, vaccines work by exposing you to a safe version of a disease, before you get exposed to the real disease.

READ MORE| Covid-19 vaccines: everything you need to know about the injections that could save your life


ARE THEY SAFE?

Yes, Professor Burnett says. “Vaccines are subjected to rigorous safety testing and will only be released onto the market if they have been found to be safe and effective.”

Before being administered to the public, a vaccine is tested on animals, then on groups of humans. The vaccine is subjected to ongoing studies to monitor any potential side effects.

We now have vaccines to prevent more than 20 life-threatening diseases, enabling people to live longer, healthier lives. Immunisation currently prevents two to three million deaths every year from conditions such as diphtheria, flu and measles.

The growing anti-vaxxer movement has led to the return of measles to some countries in the northern hemisphere where it had been eradicated for years, says Dr Albie de Frey, an honorary lecturer in travel medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand.

WHAT ABOUT THE SPEED OF THE COVID-19 VACCINE DEVELOPMENT?

There’s no need to worry, says Dr Nokukhanya Msomi, head of virology at the School of Laboratory Medicine and Medical Sciences at UKZN and the National Health Laboratory Service.

Advanced technology over the years has made the fast production of vaccines possible. “There may be short-term, mild vaccine reactions that resolve without complication or injury, but studies show the Covid-19 vaccines are safe.”

Usually vaccines take around 10 years to develop, but thanks to advances in genomic sequencing, researchers successfully uncovered the viral sequence of this disease in January 2020 – about 10 days after the first reported cases in Wuhan, China.

But this doesn’t mean the vaccine was a “rushed job”. There have been such major advances in the science of vaccine development over the years that researchers were able to refer to this to develop the Covid-19 vaccine.

Specific technology that was used for the development of this vaccine has been researched for some time, which means it could now be created faster than ever.

So while the jab may seem to have reached the market frighteningly quickly, scientists actually used information they have been gleaning for years to develop the vaccine.

“This speed of the development of this vaccine challenges our whole paradigm of what is possible in vaccine development,” says Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida in the US.

“It’s tempting to hope other vaccines might now be made on a comparable timescale against diseases like tuberculosis and malaria that kill millions of people a year.”

Extra sources: timeslive.com; dailymaverick.com; who.int

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