When South Africans finally get access to a vaccine (who knows when), you have a right to refuse it. But that doesn’t mean refusing is either clever or morally justifiable.
It’s great to see, in the wake of the public outcry over government’s utter failure to plan at all for the procurement of sufficient Covid-19 vaccines to inoculate most of the South African population, that civil society is pulling together to stage a rematch with the government by launching ‘a People’s Vaccine Campaign’. The demand is that vaccines will be rolled out quickly and at scale.
As part of the campaign, civil society organisations will focus on vaccine literacy and overcoming the flood of disinformation and fearmongering by anti-vax campaigners, primarily on social media.
So-called ‘vaccine hesitancy’ – to give it an unjustifiably kind name – has been on the increase in South Africa in recent decades, according to Charles Shey Wiysonge, director, and Sara Cooper, senior scientist, at the non-profit Cochrane South Africa, a research unit of the South African Medical Research Council. They write, ‘[G]rowing evidence suggests that it is becoming a problem.’
The disinformation campaign around Covid-19 vaccines has reached so far and wide that even healthcare workers, who are at great risk of contracting or dying of Covid-19, are hesitant to be vaccinated. It is dangerous, and it will cost lives.
The moral case
A recent report in Daily Maverick suggests that about two thirds of South Africans would probably or definitely get the vaccine, if it were made available to them. This is better than previous surveys suggest, but it is still problematic. The best evidence to date suggests that a 67% vaccination rate is the minimum necessary to achieve so-called ‘herd immunity’.
A vaccine obviously protects the recipient of the vaccine, but vaccines also protect the broader society. The fewer people in a population susceptible to a virus, the fewer people it can spread to. When the number of susceptible people is low enough, the virus will die out for lack of people to infect. That effect, called herd immunity, protects even those who did not get vaccinated, whether for medical reasons or otherwise, as well as those who didn’t get full protection from the vaccine.
To achieve a 67% vaccination rate when two thirds of the population are at least likely to accept the vaccine requires reaching exactly all those people who would agree to be vaccinated. This is not achievable, in practice. So a two-thirds acceptance rate is still far too low.
This is why it is important that if you are not in a group for which vaccines are contra-indicated, such as people who are frail, people with a history of severe allergic reactions, or people with compromised immune systems because of auto-immune diseases or cancer treatment, you should accept the vaccine.
Even though it is your right to refuse, based on whatever fears you found on Facebook, the right thing to do is to get vaccinated anyway, in order to help achieve herd immunity. Only with herd immunity can we stop the pandemic in its tracks, saving lives and putting an end to the government’s devastating anti-Covid policies.
The rational case
Getting vaccinated is also the smart thing to do. The risks associated with adverse reactions from a vaccine are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks of contracting Covid-19, even if you are young and healthy.
I have written previously about why Covid-19 vaccines will be safe. I won’t rehash the points I made there about the fact that we have a wealth of testing data for approved vaccines, except to make another point about mRNA vaccines.
Many people are worried about the fact that the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use mRNA technology.
They argue that this new technology cannot possibly have been tested properly. In fact, mRNA technology has been developed over decades, particularly for use in developing cancer drugs. It was ready for prime time when the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
In reality, all an mRNA vaccine does is cut out a step from the more traditional, adenovirus-vectored vaccines such as that developed by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson.
The latter use an inactivated adenovirus, with its DNA modified to code for the spikey part of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The virus enters human body cells, which read the DNA and transcribe the code for the coronavirus spike protein into mRNA. This mRNA instructs the cell to manufacture spike proteins, to which the immune system then learns to respond.
The mRNA vaccines skip the part where DNA is carried into cells by a carrier virus, and introduces the correct mRNA directly into the body. From there, producing the spike proteins and developing an immune response is identical. Neither vaccine type alters human DNA.
The upside of the adenovirus-vectored vaccines is that they are robust. Double-stranded DNA is less fragile than single-stranded RNA, and it is protected by the virus sheath itself, too. This is why they don’t require extreme refrigeration, as the mRNA vaccines do. The upside of the mRNA vaccines is that they can easily and quickly be created once the genetic sequence of the target virus is known, and need fewer steps to trigger the desired immune response.
The fear of a new technology that the layman does not understand is understandable, but it is misplaced. mRNA vaccines are somewhat more effective than adenovirus vaccines, and are at least as safe. They have undergone exactly the same rigorous trials before approval.
Some people worry about side-effects they heard about. Again, this fear is unjustified. We tend to respond easily to anecdotal evidence, but find it much more difficult to place such evidence in its proper statistical context.
Let’s see some examples. Four people in the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine trial developed Bell’s palsy after being vaccinated.
First, let’s establish that simply because B happened after A does not imply A caused B. This is known as the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.
Second, note that when you’re testing a vaccine on tens of thousands of people, they do not conveniently become immune to all other illnesses for the duration of the trial. The question shouldn’t be how many of the vaccinated people developed Bell’s palsy, but how many would be expected to develop Bell’s palsy over the same period even if they had not been vaccinated.
It turns out, as the Food and Drug Administration explains, ‘The observed frequency of reported Bell’s palsy in the vaccine group is consistent with the expected background rate in the general population, and there is no clear basis upon which to conclude a causal relationship’.
Look at the stats
The same argument holds for other cases. There have been reports of anaphylactic shock reactions in some vaccine recipients. That’s true, but it happens in only one out of 100 000 cases, and is quite treatable. It is the reason people are held back for observation for 15 or 30 minutes after receiving the vaccine.
Did you read a report about people who died of heart attacks, or had strokes, after being vaccinated? Before you panic, first find out how many people in that country were vaccinated, then find the background rate of such deaths in the general population, and compare the two.
Only if the adverse event rate after vaccination is significantly greater than the general background rate is there cause for concern. To date, no serious adverse event has happened more frequently than it would have in the general population.
A small number of anecdotal examples do not make a statistical case against vaccines. Usually, they aren’t even related. In the unlikely event that they are, consider that even if there is a small risk of vaccine side-effects, it must be weighed against the very significant risks of contracting Covid-19, as well as the risk that the pandemic will continue to spread, leading governments to continue dangerous lockdown policies.
The CDC reports mild side-effects in about 1 in 500 people who get vaccinated. These side-effects are limited to pain or swelling at the injection site, or fever, chills, muscle aches, tiredness or headache in the rest of the body. This is consistent with the symptoms of an immune response, and is therefore entirely expected. This is also why the frail don’t do so well with the vaccine. Even such mild side-effects can be too much for them to handle.
Some people worry about the possibility of acquiring auto-immune diseases as a result of the vaccine. While the possibility cannot be excluded, there is no evidence to suggest any of the vaccines approved for Covid-19 cause any auto-immune conditions, even in a very small number of people.
It is far more likely that you’ll develop an auto-immune response from contracting Covid-19 itself. In fact, part of its danger is exactly that: Covid-19 can lead to a cytokine storm in which the immune system produces an exaggerated inflammatory response, which compounds the damage to the lungs.
If you already have an auto-immune condition, speak to your doctor. If you go to a chiropractor, naturopath or a homeopath, get a second opinion from a real doctor. It may be inadvisable for you to take the vaccine, but then again, it may actually be less risky for you than the risk of contracting Covid-19.
As for long-term effects, those usually do emerge in the short-term, so would have been picked up in trials. While it is theoretically possible that a vaccine might have undiscovered long-term effects, it is highly implausible.
If we avoided everything that is unlikely to have long-term effects just because the long term hasn’t arrived yet, we’d have to ban new medicine, new technologies, and progress of any kind.
Many online conspiracy theories go on about the so-called ‘depopulation agenda’ of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This is based on a gross misunderstanding of what Gates once said.
Gates believes overpopulation contributes to poverty. He was commenting on what causes people in poor countries to have many children.
The reasons are varied. Children, when they grow up, can provide income support to a family. They also act as an old-age insurance policy. Especially when unemployment is high, social safety nets are absent, and people don’t have access to traditional pension funds, this is a powerful motivator to procreate.
In some societies, women do not have the choices they would enjoy in the liberal democracies of the West. They might not be able to say no. They might not have access to female contraceptives, or cannot insist on male contraceptives. They might not have the education and independence to stand up against patriarchal dominance.
Most importantly, women tend to have more children when some of them are expected to die young. Child mortality is an excellent predictor of the number of children per woman in a society.
That number, how many children the average woman actually has, is known as ‘fertility’ in demographic statistics. Gates merely observed that if one could bring down child mortality, by deploying vaccines against preventable diseases that tend to kill children, one could also reduce ‘fertility’.
That doesn’t mean vaccines kill people or sterilise women. It means that the effect of vaccines, namely better health and lower child mortality, enables women to choose to have fewer children. So the problem of populations locally outgrowing resources in poor countries can be solved by interventions that reduce child mortality, such as vaccinating against disease.
There is no ‘depopulation agenda’, and Bill Gates is not some evil genius who wants to sterilise African women with vaccines. Some people believe that vaccines are a means for Western elites – or the Chinese – to oppress the African people again. Such fears are entirely baseless, and even if true, our government would never be complicit in such a scheme.
Reckless anti-vax propaganda has spread this sort of message to the very people vaccines are meant to help. This is criminal.
Then there’s the lot that believe vaccination has to do with tracking people. Yesterday, I came across a picture of a car tyre valve core, which someone claimed was a 5G antenna that had been injected into their niece. If it had been a 5G antenna, rest assured that you would be alerted to the nefarious plot by the excruciating pain you’d feel as it was inserted.
More plausibly, a vaccine might contain nanobots, which are highly experimental means of precise drug delivery. Nanobots, however, are far too small to be interacting with telecommunications networks. Nanobots, by definition, are measured at nanometre scales. The wavelength of 5G, which has the shortest wavelength of any wireless communication medium other than visible light, is between 1mm and 10mm, so it is a million times longer than the average nanobot. A nanometre-scale device cannot receive, or emit, millimetre-scale wavelengths.
Besides, all the idiots who believe vaccines are secret 5G nanobot-delivery mechanisms can be tracked perfectly well by Facebook using the smartphones they use to spread their tinfoil-hattery.
It is also absurd to associate Covid-19 vaccines with ‘the mark of the beast’, as our honourable chief justice, Mogoeng Mogoeng, did so publicly. Even if you believe in such things, the Book of Revelations makes it clear that the mark of the beast will be applied to the forehead and the right forearm. This is not where vaccines are injected.
So, from the apparently reasonable apprehension about lack of testing or vaccine side-effects, to the fringe lunacy of conspiracy theorists, the objections of those who are ‘hesitant’ about Covid-19 vaccines are unfounded.
Given the very small risks they pose, and the very significant benefits not only to personal health but to stopping the pandemic at a population level, there is no excuse not to get vaccinated, unless you have a valid medical exclusion such as severe allergies, frailty, or a seriously compromised immune system.
Not only is it the smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do. I’ll go further: those who refuse to get vaccinated without good medical grounds, and those who advocate against being vaccinated on spurious grounds, will actively harm – and kill – other people.
Whichever way you slice it, that is morally reprehensible.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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