health

"There are a few things I want you to know." An open letter about the COVID-19 vaccine. From a doctor.

We’re living through difficult times – yes, there’s the pandemic and the social isolation, lockdowns, border closures that come with it, but there’s a misinformation pandemic too. 

For many of you, your social media feed is filled with influencers of all kinds – people who look amazing in a bikini, some who blend a green juice to boot whilst fully clothed; the issue though is that anyone, literally anyone, can dish out health information to you with absolutely no qualifications to do so. 

You may think I’m being qualification-ist (if that’s a thing)- I’m not, I’m simply very aware of the significant damage misinformation can do in the area of health.

Recently the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) made it even harder for health professionals to combat health misinformation on social media. They released a statement warning us against sharing our expert views on vaccination lest it lead anyone to seeking out vaccination. 

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The big problem here is that Gwyneth Paltrow (and her mates) can post whatever she likes about vaccines (as inaccurate as it may be) and a qualified doctor, pharmacist, scientist cannot. We have been hamstrung and somewhat silenced to combat the hogwash out there and it’s scary stuff.

It wasn’t that long ago that Belle Gibson, an unqualified health influencer, fabricated a cancer journey and started telling people how they too could “cure” and “treat” their cancers. Sadly, many followers missed out on evidence-based medical therapies for their diagnosis due to her fraudulent actions.

We continue to see all sorts of health related nonsense on our feeds (another problem by the way is how do you know what’s nonsense and what isn’t?!) – people recommending celery juice to cure ailments that we didn’t know existed and actresses like Paltrow telling us to steam our vaginas (FYI do not – you can burn yourself and it’s not pleasant). 

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My point is simply that unqualified influencers dishing out health misinformation is dangerous at the best of times, but it’s even more dangerous in a pandemic when our way out is based on interventions steeped in science and evidence-based measures like wearing face masks in certain settings and vaccination. Misinformation particularly on social media undermines the good stuff, the science, the public health interventions that will guide us out of this pandemic. 

So, there are just a couple of things I want you to know about the COVID vaccines – lest your feed has you feeling anxious and nervous. 

1. All the safety checks have been done

A lot of people feel nervous because the vaccines have been rolled out quickly but what I want you to know is that all the safety checks (in nerd terms the phase 1, 2 and 3 clinical trials) have still occurred; just more quickly. The vaccines have been checked for safety, side effects and immune responses in loads (and loads) of humans. It’s also worth knowing that ONGOING trials are occurring – we are not vaccinating people then sending them into the wilderness – we continue to collect data. 

Yes, things have moved quickly but, as I’ve said to many of my patients in the last few weeks – the world has poured its scientists, labs and finances almost exclusively into developing these vaccines– hence, the faster nature of the vaccine development. 

If only we could have the same pouring of resources into areas like mental health and aged care reform, am I right?

Nothing is risk free in medicine – even taking Ibuprofen can cause gastritis or affect your kidney function, paracetamol in high doses can be horrific for your liver. Whilst you may experience side effects like chills and muscle aches in the day or two after the vaccine – it’s worth considering whether, for you personally, those side effects are better than COVID-19 itself. 

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2. The vaccines CANNOT change your DNA

This is a myth – the contents of the vaccines do not enter the nucleus of the cell (where the DNA gold is locked away) and it certainly does not change your genetic make-up (or make you wake up looking like Beyonce sadly). 

3. It is OK to ask questions – please don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed

It’s important to say that with everything happening right now it is OK (more than OK actually) to feel uncertain, to want to know more. Please ask questions of qualified health professionals like your GP– at the moment I’m chatting about the COVID vaccines in the clinic and answering patient’s questions as they come up. Don’t rely on a former celebrity chef, an actress or someone who only eats beige food for your information about vaccines, or anything health related for that matter.

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Currently people who want to ask questions are being swiftly labelled as “opposed to vaccination”; it’s alienating and unhelpful. We should all be able to ask questions without fear of judgement or shame, so please – ask away – just ask the right (qualified) people. 

4. I’m getting the vaccine, so it my entire family – husband, mother, grandmother included

I’ll be getting the vaccine the moment it’s offered to me – both to protect myself as a front-line worker but also to protect my family. Getting the vaccine reduces my risk of contracting COVID 19 which means I’m less likely to bring it home to my two young children who are currently not eligible for the vaccines (the clinical trials are starting to include children now). The vaccine also reduces my risk of severe disease, hospitalisation and death if I do get COVID-19 – and that’s worth it to me. 

5. As always, it’s a choice – I have nothing more to say here other than that

Take care, wash your hands and be kind to each other.

Your friendly GP, Preeya

For more from Dr Preeya Alexander, you can follow her on Instagram @thewholesomedoctor

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