To get vaccinated or not: Understanding the virus and the vaccines


I had been asked if I would be willing to get vaccinated for COVID-19. My immediate answer was “No.” 

At 54, I can think of so many medical excuses to turn down the offer to get inoculated. I am pre-diabetic, anemic, and hypertensive. I have also been diagnosed with cardiomegaly (enlarged heart), which makes me a candidate for heart failure. Not to mention, my thoracic spine is drying out quickly from all those physical activities I’ve been doing since I learned how to walk.

I have yet to ask my doctor if I have the green light to go for it, but I have decided at this point that vaccination will help me protect myself and my loved ones. 

YES OR NO. A pre-diabetic and hypertensive 54-year-old Filipino woman shares how she changed her decision from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ for getting the COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes available in the Philippines.

As I scoured the Internet for legitimate sources on vaccine information, I came across a virtual town hall on COVID-19 vaccine deployment presented by the Department of Health (DOH) to the Philippine Nurses Association (one of a series). There were technical details that my lay brain could barely digest, but the simplified explanations did a good job of helping me say “Yes” to vaccination.

Vaccines to the rescue

Most of us have been praying for a vaccine so we can all get on with our rebooted lives already; but now that it’s here, we suddenly find ourselves asking if it’s a good idea. That’s because we believe that vaccines usually take years of research and tests before they are rolled out; which begs the question: how reliable are these vaccines?

But we’re not living in a time where things are “as usual,” so it’s really in our best interest to listen to what experts have to say about this batch of vaccines that are already being given in some parts of the world, and will soon be here in the Philippines.

According to Dr. Nina G. Gloriani of the Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development Vaccine Expert Panel, the ideal vaccine has the following qualities: (1) safe, (2) immunogenic (can induce the appropriate immune response), (3) can provide long-lasting immunity, (4) can protect against disease, (5) stable in field conditions, (6) preferably administered in a single dose (especially in mass immunization), (7) and affordable and accessible to all who need them.

Several groups here in the Philippines are working together to assure that the vaccines that will be allowed in the country have these qualities. Some of these groups are from DOH, DOST, Philippine Society for Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (PSMID), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and members of the private sector.

How vaccines work

In explaining how vaccines work, Dr. Marion A. Kwek, chair of the Health Education Committee of PSMID, said it plainly: “Parang nagte-training yung katawan natin. We are being taught how to identify an organism and how to fight back.”

When coronavirus attacks, our body’s immune system uses our red and white blood cells to accomplish specific missions: red for providing oxygen to our body’s tissues and organs, and white to do the actual fight against infection. 

The thing is, these cells need time—days or even weeks—before they can execute a solid defense against a new pathogen like SARS-CoV2 (or any new variant, for that matter). Our cells need to go through a process first: learn about this new enemy and remember what it learned, before being able to know how to fight back the moment they cross paths again.

With vaccines, the “training” is done using a specific type of antigen to initiate the appropriate immune response. During this training, the vaccine imitates the virus and creates antibodies. These antibodies are then stored in memory cells, then do the actual protection against infection the next time they see a pathogen. The memory cells can continuously watch out for these virulent pathogens for months or years to provide immunity.

The body will react to a vaccine in different ways the second it enters our bloodstream. Common side effects include headache, fever, and fatigue. There have also been reports of allergic reactions (breathing difficulty, rashes, etc.), nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and appearance of lymph nodes in the injected area.

“Vaccine components would trigger our body to respond, so our body would release all sorts of chemicals, proteins, cytokines, and when you inject this, definitely there is something that would happen in terms of local injury and local symptoms. We expect that there would be some redness, some swelling, and pain after receiving a vaccine,” said Dr. Kwek.

Just like any other vaccine used for other illnesses, one may experience severe or life-threatening reaction after administration. Possible, but rare.

Why we need to get vaccinated

We are all exposed to the virus one way or another, which is why we are taking precautions with masks, face shields, hand washing, disinfection, physical distancing, and staying home as much as possible. These are what we can do externally, and vaccines can take care of what happens inside our body.

“From the time you are exposed to an infectious agent, for someone who did not receive a vaccine, it takes a while before your body would develop an immune response. And in contrast to someone who has received a vaccine, because you were already able to train your body to recognize these pathogens, you are able to mount a faster immune response as if you were already infected for the first time,” explained Dr. Kwek.

Vaccination is not mandatory, but it is, in a sense, a responsibility. Those who get vaccinated indirectly help protect the vulnerable among us, like babies and the critically ill. When majority of the people within a community are already immune, we lessen the chance of spreading the virus. This is what is referred to as “herd” or “population” immunity. To achieve this, at least a third of the population must be vaccinated.

For your own peace of mind, it is best to seek your doctor’s advice before you go through vaccination. In my case, while I have already decided to take it, I would need my cardiologist and internist to tell me that my body can take it.

This is not a case of getting caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. This is really just an invitation for discernment: are you willing to fight back with a vaccine, or would you keep taking the risk of contracting COVID? Remember, though, that the virus is mutating and might continue to do so. In the end, I will have to agree with Dr. Kwek when she said, “I would rather have some discomfort (from vaccine side effects) than get COVID-19 infection.” Hear! Hear!

(A complete text of this story was first published on NewsFeed 360)

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