Sat | Sep 18, 2021

Michael Abrahams | Why I took the COVID-19 vaccine, and why you should, too

Published:Monday | March 15, 2021 | 12:08 AM
Michael Abrahams
Michael Abrahams

The COVID-19 vaccine is finally here and, after making an appointment online, I presented myself at St Joseph’s Hospital for the jab, the first of two doses, on day two of our vaccination programme. After presenting my identification and being interviewed by a public health nurse, I entered the vaccination room and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the person who would be administering the vaccine is a nurse I know very well and have worked with on several occasions.

We ‘high-elbowed’ each other before I sat at her desk, rolled up my left sleeve and received the shot in my left arm. When I got up to leave, as I approached the door, she asked me if I was okay. I responded, “Yes, I’m o…”, before pretending to lose consciousness and fall to the floor. As my body was about to make contact with the large ceramic tiles, I suddenly regained my erect posture and smiled. Realising she was pranked, the nurse, after initially freaking out, began to laugh and told me that I am horrible, a fact that has been confirmed by several observational studies.

But I digress. What I really wish to share with you all is why I took the vaccine and why I think you should, too. Understanding how vaccines work, and the urgency with which we need to protect ourselves during this pandemic, made my decision a no-brainer. Vaccines for different viruses and bacteria contain varying components that trick your immune system into thinking your body is being invaded by the particular organism.

The active ingredient in the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, the one I took, is a weakened version of a common cold virus (known as an adenovirus) from chimpanzees. It has been modified to look more like coronavirus, but it cannot infect us. On the other hand, because it is something that our bodies are not used to, its presence will stimulate our immune systems to produce antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins, which are protective proteins produced in response to the presence of foreign substances, also known as antigens. The antibodies then latch onto antigens in order to remove them from the body and protect us.

ANTIBODIES

Some of these antibodies disappear soon after being produced, but some linger for a very long time, and may even remain in our bodies for the duration of our lives. The benefit of this is that, after being stimulated by a vaccine for a particular organism, if you encounter the real, living organism, the antibodies that were formed against it by the vaccine will recognise it as a threat and attack it, and in doing so protect you from becoming ill.

So, if you receive an effective COVID-19 vaccine, which mimics the virus but cannot infect you, your body will produce antibodies against the novel coronavirus. If you subsequently encounter someone who is infected with the virus, and you inhale some of the viral particles while being in close proximity to them, the antibodies formed in response to the vaccine will attack and neutralise the viral particles and are likely to prevent you from becoming infected.

No vaccine is 100 per cent effective. So, it is possible that you could get the vaccine and still become infected. However, what the research has found is that even if you contract COVID-19 after being vaccinated, you are unlikely to become severely ill from the infection. So, vaccination will reduce your risk of becoming infected with the virus, and if your risk of getting infected is lowered, the risk of you transmitting the virus to others is also lowered.

HERD IMMUNITY

At the end of the day, the aim of vaccination is to achieve herd immunity. This is a term we hear often in relation to managing this pandemic, but what does it mean? After all, we are humans, not cows, so what is it with this ‘herd’ thing? Herd immunity refers to indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a population is immune either through vaccination or immunity developed through previous infection. If we allow the infection to spread throughout the population, we will eventually achieve herd immunity, but at a huge cost, as many people will die or become severely ill. If, however, we achieve herd immunity primarily through vaccination, not allowing COVID-19 to spread unabated throughout the population, we will avoid unnecessary cases and deaths.

Can the vaccine produce side effects? Of course. Any drug or pharmaceutical agent has the potential to cause side effects. Several hours after taking the vaccine I experienced muscle and joint pains and chills, but these subsided within 24 hours.

The important question to ask with the vaccine is, do the potential benefits outweigh the risks? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. The vaccine may give you temporary side effects, but COVID-19 has killed almost three million people worldwide, and continues to take lives. Widespread vaccination has the potential to lower morbidity and mortality (sickness and death) from the infection, and in doing so reduce the stress and strain on the health sector and allow restrictions to be gradually lifted to facilitate some semblance of normality.

And there is evidence that vaccination programmes are working. Research from the UK, the US, and Israel have shown that their programmes have been highly effective in protecting against infection with COVID-19, lowering the risk of getting sick with the disease, especially severe disease, and dropping COVID-19 hospitalisation rates.

Getting vaccinated makes sense. I highly recommend it.

Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, social commentator, and human-rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.