As a scientist and researcher in public health engaged with colleagues in the area of HIV, I thank our lucky stars for the concerted public health response that has allowed Australia to make it through 2020 relatively unscathed compared to the rest of the world.

The challenges that define us in an era of hope

The end of 2020 saw much hope and promise as news of effective vaccines started taking airtime from the usual doom and gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet, here’s the thing…while many people felt hope because they understood and/or trusted the science and the regulatory processes involved in rolling out vaccines, many others unfortunately did not.  Recently, I’ve been part of a group of Canadian volunteer pharmacists, GPs, and scientists who offer jargon-free explanations and information to people who are anxious, hesitant or simply curious about vaccines.

For far too many people, the vaccines brought, and continue to bring, fresh anxieties. Many feared that the COVID-19 vaccines may be forced upon them.

We’ve all seen and read media articles that followed shortly after the news of the vaccine rollout which showed a nurse fainting (with no fault of the vaccine contents itself) after their shot, and articles that falsely linked deaths to vaccines.

Many of us have noticed the click-bait media reporting in our social media feeds of people contracting COVID-19 shortly after the vaccine, the fake articles of vaccines laced with tracking chips, and the false idea that vaccines are untrustworthy and skipped safety steps because they were made available in about a year.

These articles have meant that public health workers have had to fight two wars – the COVID-19 virus and the COVID-19 misinformation pandemic (infodemic). The misinformation and irresponsible click-bait headlines have unfortunately fueled vaccine hesitancy driving many vulnerable people into further vulnerability.  For many countries around the world with high levels of community transmission, vaccine hesitancy has meant increased deaths among vulnerable and marginalised communities and also among those who have gravely misjudged their own vulnerability.

Fortunately for us in Australia, our stringent biosecurity laws, border shuts downs, and our hotel quarantine systems have meant that people who are vaccine hesitant will have some time to make their decision (thanking our lucky stars again).

To ease your mind…

#ThisIsOurShot has been a popular hashtag that healthcare workers around the world have been using to make their vaccine selfies accessible. We’ve noticed that these Healthcare worker vaccine selfies have done wonders for people who are anxious about getting the vaccines.

Keep in mind, everything that happened in the past such as heart attacks, pregnancies, miscarriages etc. will continue to happen at the same rate that they did before COVID-19.

What is going to be a little different is that hundreds of millions of vaccines will be rolling out at the same time. So when the next click-bait headline pops up in your newsfeed with a condition ‘linked’ to the vaccine, it’s important to remember that coincidence doesn’t mean that the vaccine caused a particular condition.

Every adverse event after vaccination is reported by people like you and I, and thoroughly investigated to find out if they’re directly linked to the vaccine. This is referred to as pharmacovigilance and for us Aussies it can be reported on this website or via your health care provider.

This aspect of vigilance is built into all approved products so our public health officials are able to do their jobs of protecting us and alerting us of any issues that may arise really well (no click-baits here again!).

It is this pharmacovigilance that has allowed swift action and change in guidelines following reports of a rare (approximately 6.5 events per million doses according to the European Medicines Agency) but serious clotting event associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine. Pharmacovigilance also ensured that health care providers are alert and now know what to look out for and have access to appropriate treatment guidelines for this specific type of clot. For a lot of us, the news of the serious clotting events fed into hesitancy. However, it’s important to acknowledge this as a testament to how seriously our public health system takes our safety, even with such rare events, and how transparently the risks are communicated to us.

On a personal note…

I strongly emphasise the choice to get vaccinated is yours and yours alone. No health care worker with an ethical bone in their body would ever administer a vaccine without your consent.

Informed consent means being open and honest about what we don’t know, and also understanding what the (very real) risks are of not getting vaccinated.

If you are hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccine for whatever reason, if you’re feeling anxious, if you’re feeling unsure about making a decision to get the vaccine, please reach out to your health care provider and talk to them about your vaccine concerns. It is your right to want to know more about the vaccines. It is your right to ask questions and it is your right to feel comfortable with the decisions that affect your health.

Your health care providers are best placed to articulate the risks of COVID-19 as they relate to your age, work, and any comorbidities that you have and are able to talk through the vaccine science and data. They will also be able to explain what we know because of the very generous people living with HIV who volunteered to participate in vaccine trials.

These conversations are also a great place for you to clarify any concerns you may have and receive factual verified information (no click-baits here!).

Despite these conversations, if you still decide that vaccines aren’t for you, your decision to not get vaccinated today, doesn’t have to be your decision tomorrow. It’s important to keep a conversation going with your health care provider.

If you’d like to do your own research, you can safely learn more from the NSW Health website for trusted information.

Other trusted sources of information include the Australian government health page.

Other reliable sources include the Centre for Disease Control (the CDC) which is US-based and the World Health Organisation (WHO) based in Europe.

As many people around the world are getting vaccinated including many of your peers living with HIV,  I sincerely hope at some point you will share the same joy and relief that I felt in December 2020.

Be safe my friends.

– Dr Prital Patel

Published in Talkabout #196 April 2021

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