“Vaccines bring us closer” is the theme of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) World Immunization Week 2021 at the end of next month. Indeed, vaccines can enable us to be physically closer to each other and also bring us closer to controlling diseases that have ravaged our world. WHO, along with public health and government leaders, are urging people across the globe to receive the vaccinations they need—and none of them are more urgent than the COVID-19 vaccines.
Before looking at the development, safety, and response to COVID-19 vaccinations, it’s important to understand the significance of previous vaccine successes in our country and around the world.
Vaccines: “a public good that saves lives and protects health.”
Since 1796, when the first successful vaccine for smallpox became available, vaccinations have been employed to diminish or eliminate highly infectious diseases. Many people still carry a small, round scar on their upper arm, indicating their participation as children and young adults in a 1960s-1970s global campaign that succeeded in eradicating smallpox by 1980.
Older Baby Boomers and members of the Silent and Greatest Generations also remember the 1950s polio epidemic in the U.S., a virus that spread via direct contact and caused paralysis. It was brought under control and completely gone in 1979, thanks to the development and broad use of the Salk vaccine.
WHO reports that today, 86 percent of children worldwide receive essential vaccines, up from only 20 percent in 1980. By vaccinating the youngest members of our populations against measles, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B, and polio, protection against those infectious diseases also spreads throughout their communities. Vaccine success stories have also been realized in managing influenza, Ebola, and meningitis.
WHO’s 2021 campaign is focused on increasing trust and confidence in all vaccines, so they will be increasingly accepted, and also on boosting funding for vaccines, enabling greater access to them. As each of us waits to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, WHO recommends that we continue to get routine immunizations to safeguard people of all ages.
Battling coronaviruses is not new.
While some people believe the available COVID-19 vaccines were hastily developed and not thoroughly tested, nothing could be further from the truth. At a recent virtual town hall sponsored by the Reid Temple A.M.E. Church in Maryland, the deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Dr. Barney Graham, said the ability to create the COVID-19 vaccines grew out of a flare-up of another coronavirus nearly 20 years ago.
“We’ve been applying technologies since the original SARS outbreak in 2002 to develop ways of making vaccines for coronaviruses. So the work you’ve seen in the last year has been a derivative of all our research from at least the past two decades.”
Dr. Graham, who also heads NIAID’s Viral Pathogenesis Laboratory, said the currently released COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective and well-tolerated:
- The vaccines uniformly protect against the most severe disease and are safe for individuals of all races and ethnicities aged 16+.
- Ninety-nine percent of side effects occur in the first six weeks, and most are very transient and local.
- Since the testing of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines was done on two doses of the same vaccine, people should schedule their shots in that manner.
- People already infected with COVID-19 should receive the vaccine, as it creates stronger immunity than their natural infection did.
- Pregnant and breast-feeding women and anyone with underlying medical conditions—from heart disease and diabetes to sickle cell disease and HIV—should be vaccinated in consultation with their primary health care provider.
“Hardest-hit city areas have lowest vaccination rates.”
That March 3rd Boston Globe headline sums up a major concern of public health officials: Black and Latinx Americans have more COVID-19 infections, severe cases, and deaths than other races and ethnicities but are lagging in vaccinations. This disparity in inoculations is due not only to the current eligibility guidelines.
Unfortunately, when a Black American critical-care nurse became the first person in our country to receive the vaccine last December, many in minority communities felt as much distrust as they did delight. Sandra Lindsay wanted people of color to believe in the science behind the vaccine and help release fears generated by historical experimentation, oppression, and discrimination. That is easier said than done.
Even before that first COVID-19 shot, the National Medical Association (NMA), a professional society of African American doctors, began working to generate trust in the vaccines. They vetted the data, endorsed the use of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, and dispelled myths about how African Americans would respond to them. The NMA task force continues to listen, educate, and push to make the vaccines more easily available to people of color.
Former NMA president and task force member Dr. Oliver Brooks told STAT, “we need to ensure that the African American community and those that have challenges with transportation, health care, sick leave from work, and finances—that they have as much access as others.”
Vaccination Brings Peace of Mind and Renewed Hope
Widespread inoculation against COVID-19 will not only slow and eventually stop the spread of this deadly disease. It will begin our mental healing, raising the spirits of our country and our world from more than a year of fear, uncertainty, grief, and isolation. Healthline contributor Nancy Schimelpfening says receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine gave her the “peace of mind” she had not had since the pandemic started. Health care worker Lisa Heath told AARP, "I feel good that I got the vaccine. I feel less anxious, more relaxed and a sense of relief that it's done.”
Dr. Graham put it simply, “Immune people block the transmission chain. So as more people are immunized, they will surround those who are susceptible or infected—and the virus will have no place to go. Our jobs as human beings are to trap the virus and stop it from spreading.”
I urge those who have received a COVID-19 vaccine to discuss their experiences, both physical and mental, with friends and neighbors. And I implore leaders in underserved communities to spread the messages of vaccine success in their businesses, churches, and schools. Our joy in ending this pandemic should be shared universally!