For those hesitant to get vaccinated, what are some common vaccine myths and how can each of us work to address these misconceptions?
We spoke with CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, Emergency Physician and Visiting Professor at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, about how anyone can debunk myths, allay worries. and disseminate specific information on Covid-19 vaccines.
Dr. Leana Wen: One of the key principles of public health is that the messenger is often more important than the message. You are someone’s most trusted messenger. It could be your parents, coworkers, or friends. Getting people vaccinated is our best hope to end this pandemic, and we need everyone’s help to convince people to do so.
Another principle of public health is to meet people where they are. It means trying to understand why someone may be hesitant about the coronavirus vaccine. The way you approach a person will be completely different if they are wondering if the vaccine is safe or if they don’t believe the coronavirus is real. It is crucial to listen to and respond to someone’s concerns, with compassion and empathy.
There are some common myths that I often hear from my patients, but there are things each of us can say if someone around us voices these myths.
CNN: Let’s talk about vaccine safety. There must be a lot of myths about this.
Loupe: A common myth is that the coronavirus vaccine will give you coronavirus. I also hear this every year when it comes to the flu shot: Often times patients say they don’t want to get the flu shot because they think they are going to get the flu.
Neither is true. If anyone is worried about this, you can say that none of the coronavirus vaccines tested in the United States contain a live virus. It is therefore not possible to obtain a coronavirus from the coronavirus vaccine.
Another set of myths concerns the mRNA platform that is used for the Pfizer / BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. I’ve heard people wonder if the vaccine will somehow affect their genetic code and change their genes.
This is not true. It is helpful to explain what mRNA technology is. The term “mRNA” stands for messenger RNA, which is a part of the genetic code that teaches cells how to make a protein. The protein produced by the mRNA then activates an immune response, teaching our bodies how to respond to the coronavirus if we come into contact with it in the future.
What is very important to understand is what mRNA does not do: It never enters the nucleus of people’s cells, where our DNA is. This means that the vaccine does not interact with people’s DNA at all and therefore will not change our genetic code.
CNN: mRNA technology is new technology. Many fear that it is too recent and that it has been developed too quickly.
Loupe: There are two points here and two ways to address this concern. First, mRNA technology has been in development for over a decade. Second, I think it’s essential to explain that no shortcuts have been taken in the scientific research or approval processes. Yes, scientists have developed the vaccines in record time. But that’s because the entire world scientific community got down to work. They did not start from scratch; after the SARS and MERS outbreaks, a lot of work has already been done to initiate vaccine development.
The US government and other governments have invested a lot of money in research. And, frankly, we have been fortunate with research to already have two safe and so effective vaccines. But each phase of clinical research has been followed as with other vaccines, with tens of thousands of volunteers in clinical trials. External committees of independent scientists reviewed the data and no shortcuts were taken for vaccine authorization.
CNN: What about allergic reactions? Isn’t there also a myth that these vaccines cause too many allergic reactions and therefore are not safe?
Loupe: It is true that allergic reactions to vaccines have been reported. Allergic reactions can occur to virtually any medical product. In emergencies, we continuously treat allergic reactions to food and drugs. They are much easier to treat than Covid-19.
At the moment, it is not known why these very rare allergic reactions occur. That is why anyone who receives the Covid-19 vaccine must stay 15 minutes after receiving it. And if you have a history of severe allergic reactions, you may need to wait 30 minutes. If a severe allergic reaction occurs, it can be treated with an EpiPen.
The remote possibility of a rare allergic reaction is not a reason for not getting the vaccine. The very real and substantial benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the very rare (and treatable) risks of allergic reactions. People who are allergic to foods and drugs can still get the vaccine. The only reason you should not get the vaccine is if you have a specific known reaction to any component of the vaccine itself.
CNN: Here’s another myth – we don’t know how long the vaccine provides immunity, so there’s no point in taking it.
Loupe: This is where recognizing that the myth comes from a place of some truth is a good place to start. It is true that we do not know how long the immunity of the vaccine will last. Studies so far suggest that it should last for at least several months, but we don’t know if immune protection against the vaccine wanes over time. It’s also possible that enough mutations will occur that new vaccines need to be set up, and people who have already received the vaccine may need a booster – as is the case with a tetanus vaccine. The coronavirus vaccine may become something you need to get yourself every year, like the flu shot.
But just because you might need to get the vaccine again at some point doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get it the first time. Think about the flu shot: Just because you have to get it every year doesn’t mean you should never get it at all.
CNN: What about young, healthy people who say only the elderly or those with underlying medical conditions should get vaccinated?
Loupe: Right now, when vaccine supply is limited, we should prioritize those who are more likely to become seriously ill to get vaccinated first. Finally, when the supply is sufficient, we want everyone to receive the vaccine.
Here’s why. First, even those who are young and healthy can contract coronavirus and become very sick. It is less common, but deaths also occur in this population. Second, we must strive for herd immunity through vaccination. This is the level at which the virus will slow down considerably and hopefully even stop its spread. Public health experts like Dr Anthony Fauci have estimated that we need around 70% to 85% of the vaccinated population to reach this stage.
The sooner we get people vaccinated, the sooner we can all return to some semblance of pre-pandemic normality and end the devastation of this disease. And that not only requires the elderly and the most vulnerable, but we all get the vaccine.
CNN: I’m sure you’ve met people who think they can stop wearing a mask after getting the vaccine.
Loupe: At this time, we understand that the Covid-19 vaccine prevents a person from getting sick, and that the vaccine also protects against serious illnesses that lead to hospitalization and death. It’s really important. But it is not known if the vaccine prevents someone from carrying the coronavirus that could infect others. Also, the vaccine appears to be 95% effective, which is amazing, but not 100%.
This is why people still need to exercise caution even after being vaccinated. At some point, however, as we approach herd immunity through vaccination, we may be able to eliminate the masks. In the meantime, think of vaccines as a tool that is no substitute for other tools but is essential in saving lives.
CNN: What about people who say they’re worried about the long-term effects and think that as long as enough people are getting the vaccine, they don’t need to worry about it?
Loupe: This point of view based on a certain truth must be approached with compassion and empathy. Several surveys show that many Americans prefer not to be the first to get vaccinated. There are a lot of Americans who want to be first, and right now the demand is far greater than the supply.
Over the next few months, several million people will be vaccinated. It is reasonable to cite these examples of people to say that we are showing not only tens of thousands of research participants, but tens of millions of people that the vaccine is safe and effective. Getting the vaccine yourself when it’s your turn, and showing other examples of people in the community being vaccinated, will also help convince reluctant friends and relatives.
Humility and honesty are essential. We have to recognize that vaccines are relatively new and therefore we don’t know the long term consequences. But then add that there is no reason to believe that the vaccines will cause long-term ill effects. We have a long history of vaccine development, and scientifically there is no evidence of long term harm with these vaccines.
We know that Covid-19 can cause serious illness and death. We know that thousands of Americans die every day. They are also our family members, friends and colleagues. This is why it is so important to get the vaccine. We are in the middle of a pandemic, and it takes all of us to protect ourselves and to protect others as well.
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