Looking at the history of vaccines can help you recognize their impact. Infectious diseases (diseases that can spread to others) have been studied since the late 1700s. Through research, it was found that many of them can be prevented through immunization. In fact, thanks to immunization, many infectious diseases are uncommon or completely eliminated in Canada today.
With that said, vaccines are a very important tool in stopping the spread of infectious diseases because they can offer some protection, known as immunity. When a large percentage of the population becomes immune, the virus will slow down or stop entirely. This is called ‘herd immunity’, which is the outcome we want to achieve with today’s COVID-19 vaccines.
Two COVID-19 vaccines were recently approved by Health Canada: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Both vaccines are messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. “Messenger” vaccines work by sending information to your body so that it will be ready to fight COVID-19, if you are ever exposed.
More specifically, when you are given the vaccine (by injection into the muscle of the arm), the instructions (mRNA) enter your immune cells. The cells follow these instructions like a recipe and this allows them to make a harmless piece of what is called the “spike protein”. This protein is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Once your body makes the spike protein pieces, your cells display them on their surface. This will alarm your immune system – because it recognizes that the protein pieces don’t belong there – and it will start to make antibodies. Antibodies help the body fight viruses by getting rid of “invaders”, such as spike protein pieces, that can cause infections. This process is what keeps the virus from “attacking” the body and what allows it to build immunity against COVID-19 overtime.
Your body is very smart. Once it learns how to fight off a specific virus, it remembers how to do it again. The benefit of mRNA vaccines, just like other vaccines, is that it helps your body develop immunity by learning to fight the virus that causes COVID-19 without having to get the illness.
mRNA vaccines are new, but they are not unknown. Researchers discovered mRNA technology over thirty years ago. In fact, scientists have been studying and working on a coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) vaccine since the SARS outbreak in 2003. Therefore, there are many years of research behind this “new” technology, which allows for easier vaccine production.
Past research, in combination with endless financial and administrative support from governments, helped scientists around the world work together to develop a COVID-19 vaccine rapidly. This achievement is a result of global collaboration and the elimination of the “red tape” that typically slows down vaccine production.
Once vaccines are developed, they have to pass an in-depth review process by Health Canada before being approved. No safety requirements in clinical trials for the COVID-19 vaccine were bypassed. The criteria were just as strict as the regular process for any other vaccine.
Although it has not yet been confirmed by the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, it is presumed that our communities will be receiving the Moderna vaccine since it can be more easily transported to rural and remote communities.
Ontario is currently in Phase 1 of the vaccine program, which is expected to last until later this winter. There will be limited supply of vaccines at this time, therefore the province will be prioritizing regions with the highest rates of COVID-19 infection, as well as the following groups:
- residents, staff, essential caregivers (including family caregivers) and other employees who work in congregate living settings providing care for seniors;
- health care workers, including hospital employees and other health care personnel;
- First Nations, Métis and Inuit populations, including those living in remote or isolated areas;
- recipients of chronic home health care.
The Marathon Family Health Team wants to assure our communities that we are working hard to get the vaccine to our communities in a timely manner and that the vaccine will eventually be offered to all who want it.
The Moderna vaccine is recommended for people who are 18 years of age and older. It is given in two doses (28 days apart) and it shows to be 94.1% effective two weeks after the second dose.
It is not recommended for individuals who have an immediate or severe allergic reaction (e.g., anaphylaxis) to any component of the vaccine or its packaging, or to individuals who have reacted to other vaccines in the past.
Some populations may need special consideration for COVID-19 vaccination since they were excluded from vaccine clinical trials. These include children under the age of 16, pregnant or breastfeeding women and individuals who are immunocompromised. If you fall into one of these categories, it doesn’t mean that you cannot get the vaccine. It just means that you should speak to your health care provider to review the risks and benefits of getting vaccinated for COVID-19.
Sometimes after vaccination, the process of building immunity can cause symptoms. These symptoms are normal and are a sign that the body is building immunity.
The most commonly reported side effects of the Moderna vaccine are: pain at the site of injection, body chills, feeling tired and feeling feverish. These side effects usually start one or two days after getting the vaccine and should go away within a few days. These short-term, easily managed symptoms are a sign that your body is responding to the vaccine and that your immune system is doing what it is supposed to do.
As with all vaccines, there is a chance that there will be a serious side effect, but these are rare and typically occur within minutes of receiving the vaccine. This means that you would be in a space, such as the clinic, where you would be taken care of by a physician.
COVID-19 can have serious, life-threatening complications, and there is no way to know how the virus will affect you. Getting a COVID-19 vaccine may help you from getting seriously ill even if you do get COVID-19. It may also protect people around you, particularly people at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.
Although COVID-19 has a high survival rate, it’s important to understand that symptoms can persist for weeks or months after infection, even in young and otherwise healthy people. COVID-19 can also cause damage to the lungs, heart and brain, which increases the risk of long-term health problems. Therefore, the vaccine benefits outweigh the known risks of contracting COVID-19.
Following public health recommendations (e.g., wearing masks, social distancing) help reduce your chance of being exposed to the virus or spreading it to others, but these measures are not enough. Stopping a pandemic requires using all the tools we have available. The combination of getting vaccinated and following public health advice will offer you and others the best protection against COVID-19.
Overtime, vaccination will also allow ‘normal’ life to resume. This means that a lot of the things that you may currently be missing, such as physical contact with others, travel, sporting events, play dates, etc., will no longer seem so out of reach. That said, getting vaccinated for COVID-19 will not only help you get closer to a new normal, but it will help your neighbours, community and country get back to enjoying these aspects of life again too.