Why you should not worry about vaccine side effects

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The vaccines are here but they’ll be no good without willing arms to take shots. For policymakers, the next challenge is to coax people to the vaccination centres. Rumours flying around on social media don’t make their task easier.

Representational photo© Javier Zayas Photography/Getty Representational photoIn the US, a Pew survey shows 60% of people will “probably” or “definitely” take the vaccine – up from 51% in September – but only 37% are willing to be among the first to take it. They are afraid of the many rumoured and real side effects.

This fear is a known derailer of vaccination programmes. It keeps people from taking their annual flu shots, which have only mild side effects. But as the former US FDA commissioner Mark McClellan tells The Washington Post, Covid vaccines are likely to be “more unpleasant than flu vaccines.”

About 2-10% of vaccine recipients can expect a reaction, data from the ongoing trials shows. It seems a small figure, but if 1 crore people take a shot, we are looking at 2 lakh to 10 lakh of them feeling sick for a day or two afterwards.

That’s why it is important to address people’s fears early. If they know what’s coming – and that fever and pain for a couple of days is preferable to Covid – they will not be swayed by the anti-vaxxers.

Tip: Don’t schedule anything important for a couple of days after your vaccination. Let your office know in advance and keep paracetamol at home to deal with pain and fever. 

No gain without pain

‘Reactogenic’ could be 2021’s word of the year if even 5% of the population experiences vaccine side effects. It simply means causing a reaction. The Post says all of the major Covid vaccines are reactogenic. So, if you experience side effects after taking your shot, it’s nothing to worry about. It just shows the vaccine is working. “It’s absolutely normal,” an expert tells the Post.

In pics: Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak around the world

Slide 1 of 83: Travellers wearing face masks walk at Beijing Capital International Airport, following the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Beijing, China November 22, 2020. REUTERS/Tingshu WangNext SlideFull Screen1/83 SLIDES © Tingshu Wang/ReutersTravelers wearing face masks are seen at Beijing Capital International Airport in China on Nov. 22.

Why do vaccines cause reactions? The immune system does not like strangers floating around. Whether it’s a virus or a vaccine, they come under fire, and the byproducts of this reaction circulate in blood, causing other reactions, such as rashes and headaches. The new mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna cause side effects for another reason – they deliver the mRNA wrapped in a lipid (fat), which the immune system does not take kindly to.

The immune system gets more tolerant with age. For example, high fever of 105°F is not unusual in children but rare in adults, an article in Inverse points out. This explains why older people have reported milder reactions in vaccine trials.

Tip: Russian authorities have advised men participating in the Sputnik V trial to not get anyone pregnant for the next three months as the vaccine’s effect on sperm is not known. Track the latest updates on coronavirus with Microsoft News app on Android, iOS and Windows 10

How much pain?

It’s safe to assume that Covid vaccines can cause some reaction or discomfort for a few days, but how much discomfort?

The Post quotes a 34-year-old man who took Moderna’s mRNA vaccine. He says he felt pain in his left arm a day afterwards. “It felt like somebody had bashed my arm for a solid hour”. He also felt tired. These effects went away on the third day.

Deutsche Welle’s Russia correspondent Sergey Satanovskiy took the Sputnik V vaccine in Moscow, and has described his side effects in detail:

“I developed a headache in the evening after leaving work and began to shiver and had a feeling of dizziness… My temperature rose to 38.6 degrees. I took some paracetamol… and went to bed. The next day, my temperature had gone down to 37(C). A day later, I had no more symptoms at all.”

Both Pfizer and Moderna have reported stronger side effects in trial participants after the second vaccine dose. 

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