He had smoked a pack a day for over 50 years and had no thoughts of quitting. He was a confident and defiant gentleman who did not take anyone else’s word for it and he knew his body better than any doctor. He didn’t want to get his flu vaccine but his wife talked him into it. Prior to the shot he had been losing weight but he had been eating less and didn’t think much of it. His primary care doctor was concerned, however, and at the same visit where he got his flu vaccine, he was sent for a CT scan of his chest. The scan was done a week later and showed a large mass which turned out to be lung cancer. He was furious, convinced that flu shot had given him cancer. This is a true story.
The vaccine researcher Paul Offit tells the story of his wife who is a pediatrician. She was seeing a small child in her office and preparing to give her a vaccination. While she was drawing the vaccine into the syringe, the child had a seizure, the first manifestation of epilepsy. Stop for a moment and imagine – what would have happened if she gave the vaccine 5 minutes earlier? Could anyone have convinced that mother that it wasn’t the shot that caused the seizure? Could anyone have convinced you that it wasn’t the vaccine?
So it’s in. I had my appointment this morning, 8:15 to get Pfizer vaccine number 2. I’m not looking forward to being tired for a day and having a sore arm but it’s more than worth it. I’ll take some Tylenol and it will all be gone in a day or two but the protection will remain, hopefully for several years. I’m especially excited after having lost another 7 patients in the ICU last week with no signs of the numbers coming down. The faster people get vaccinated, the sooner this will all be over.
Even though there is nothing to suggest that this vaccine will have any major side effects there will certainly be reports of terrible events happening after the vaccine but the reports should be taken with caution.
One of the reasons is that every day bad things happen to people all over the world. As an example, every day there are about 400 deaths from strokes in the United States. If tens of millions of Americans get vaccinated in the coming months, it is certain that some people will have a stroke very shortly after their vaccination. Now imagine someone gets their vaccine and has a stroke the next day. The family posts their sorrow and outrage on social media. At the same time, someone in Europe also has a stroke after their vaccine. They also report it on social media. Then someone in Argentina. The anti-vaxxer movement who is always hyperalert for unproven associations then collates this information and spreads the untruth that the vaccine was the cause of these strokes. It then goes viral and may even be picked up by mainstream media. Then people stop getting vaccinated. Then we’re stuck in the pandemic for longer.
In reality, just like with my patient’s lung cancer, the stroke would have happened whether or not the vaccine was given. The timing was a coincidence. It was an association but it was not causation. This will be true of heart attacks, nerve conditions, and any other myriad medical conditions that afflict people without clear cause every day.
This is not to say that there are not going to be people who have severe reactions to the vaccine. It just means that it will take smart people time to tease out whether the reactions are from the vaccine or from chance. It will take smart people who know what they’re doing. Expertise matters and you can’t find it on social media.
Don’t forget also that the virus is killing thousands of people every day. It has been like having 9/11 every day for several weeks. It has been like 10 747s crashing every day and that’s just the deaths and that’s just in the United States. That does not include all the neurological, psychiatric, respiratory, cardiac, and seemingly endless other side effects of the virus. There may be rare reactions to that vaccine that may be severe. Some may even die and that will be a tragedy but it does not change the near certainty that the risk of something bad happening to you is far greater if you do not get vaccinated than if you do. This is true no matter what you see on Facebook. In fact, this may be a good time to go off Facebook altogether. There is accruing evidence that the less time on Facebook will make you a happier person. It will make you healthier too. The irony is not lost on me now as I ask you kindly to post, tweet, instagram, or tik tok these posts; post pictures of you getting your vaccine when available; and shouting down anybody who spews internet sourced nonsense at you. The cacophony of misinformation needs to be counteracted. It is so loud that it will take all of us balance it out.