Understanding Vaccines: Can They Really Be Trusted?

understanding-vaccines-professor-nurse scientist

Vaccines are a hot topic right now. 

That should come as no surprise since we’re still in the midst of a global pandemic due to SARS-CoV-2 (commonly known as the coronavirus causing the infectious disease COVID-19) and its variants. In fact, we’ve reached the 1-year mark that COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

What a crazy year it’s been!

And now, vaccines are a frequent topic on the news. Healthcare facilities, drug stores, and large parking lots are being used as community COVID-19 vaccination centers.

While the most common vaccines we’re hearing about are the COVID-19 vaccines, a number of vaccines are administered yearly by hospitals for the following infections including:

  • Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR combined vaccine)
  • Chickenpox
  • Hepatitis A
  • Flu
  • Meningococcal disease
  • Shingles
  • Tetanus

While vaccines have been around since the late 1700s (or possibly even earlier), can they really be trusted? There are a number of skeptics, and some people are reluctant to receive vaccines.

My hope as a nurse scientist, professor, and nurse practitioner is to educate my community and readers. I hope to provide you with science-based information so you can make an informed decision on what to do for yourself and your loved ones.

To give you an overview, this blog will explore:

  • what vaccines are
  • how vaccines work in the body
  • how vaccines are made
  • how the vaccine can help your community
  • COVID-19 vaccine myths
  • pros and cons of being vaccinated

To get started, I’ll define what vaccines are.

What Are Vaccines?

The idea of vaccines may have originated from the homeopathic belief that small doses of a pathogen (like bacteria and viruses) may protect someone against severe disease. While the origins of inoculation (another term for vaccination) are not known, there is documentation of the practice being used across the continents of Africa and Asia as early as the 1500’s. The practice was introduced to New England in the 1700’s by an African slave by the name of Onesimus during a smallpox epidemic throughout the American Colonies.

The Oxford Languages Dictionary defines a vaccine as: 

“A substance that’s used to stimulate the production of antibodies and provide immunity against one or several diseases, prepared from the causative agent of a disease, its products, or a synthetic substitute, treated to act as an antigen without inducing the disease.”

In simpler terms, a vaccine is a substance that’s made from minuscule amounts of dead, inactive, or weak pathogens (like viruses, bacteria, or toxins) that can help your body fight disease in a short amount of time so you won’t become ill. 

In order to gain a deeper understanding of vaccines, it’ll help to know how vaccines work in the body. Let’s explore this next.

How Do Vaccines Work in the Body?

In order to understand vaccines and how they work in the body, we first need to understand how our immune system works. 

When you’re exposed to a pathogen, your immune system triggers a series of responses to identify and remove it from your body. Your body’s initial response involves protective methods known as innate immunity. Your innate immune system is triggered during the first hours to few days of being first exposed to a pathogen.

Innate immunity includes: protective barriers like your skin and eyelashes, defense mechanisms like stomach acid, and general symptoms. You’re probably well aware of the general symptoms associated with innate immunity, including: coughing, sneezing, fever, and/or inflammation. Your body uses these responses to eliminate foreign microbes as quickly as possible, before your adaptive immunity has time to kick-in.

Another line of defense that your body uses is adaptive immunity. These are your white blood cells that fight infection. The major types of white blood cells include:

  • Macrophages: They ingest dead and dying pathogen cells and leave behind antigens. Antigens are like the cookie crumbs that you may leave behind after eating a snack. Your body will mark the antigens as dangerous and create antibodies to attack them.
  • B-lymphocytes: They produce antibodies to attack the antigens left behind by the macrophages. Antibodies are like your dog that tracks down those crumbs and eats them up.
  • T-lymphocytes: They attack cells that were already infected by the pathogen. Another name for t-lymphocytes is memory cells because they can remember what the pathogen cells look like and how to fight them.

White blood cells are important in fighting disease once it’s first introduced in the body and if you’re re-infected with the same pathogen. 

Now it’s great that your body has an immune system and important cells to fight bacteria and viruses. However, there’s a risk involved. 

It can take your body time to learn how to respond to pathogens and build up its defense systems. Also, there can be severe consequences in young or elderly people to fight back against a virus or bacteria if they’re exposed. Young people’s immune systems aren’t fully developed, and a natural part of aging is a declining immune response. So, that makes these two populations extra susceptible to pathogens, and more likely to develop severe complications.

So what if there was a way for your body’s immune system to prepare itself to fight against the pathogen if it invades the body?

Enter: vaccines. 

Vaccines can help your body trigger its adaptive immune system without being exposed to the full concentration of the pathogen. 

Now, vaccines can differ in how they’re made. The substance in the vaccine that your body identifies as the pathogen can differ depending on how the vaccine is made. Scientists study the pathogen and how our immune systems respond to the pathogen in order to determine the most effective type of vaccine for each pathogen.

How Is the COVID-19 Vaccine Made?

Vaccines are made in a number of ways. The four main types of vaccines are:

  • Live-attenuated vaccines: Use a weakened form of the pathogen to create the vaccine. Not recommended for people with a weakened immune system. 
  • Inactivated vaccines: Use an inactivated pathogen to create the vaccine and may require multiple doses.
  • Toxoid vaccines: Use a toxin made by the pathogen that causes illness to create the vaccine. The immune response targets the toxin and not the whole pathogen.
  • Subunit, polysaccharide, recombinate, and conjugate vaccines: Use specific pieces of the pathogen to create the vaccine. Normally they can be used on anyone, including people who have a weakened immune system.

But what about the COVID-19 vaccine?

There are three main types of COVID-19 vaccines.

  • mRNA vaccines: The newest type of vaccine that contains mRNA, a material from the COVID-19 virus, that instructs our cells to make a protein that activates our adaptive immune system.
  • Protein subunit vaccines: Contains harmless proteins of the COVID-19 virus that help our immune systems create T-lymphocytes and antibodies to fight the virus if you’re infected
  • Vector vaccines: Contain two types of viruses: a weakened version of a live virus that’s different from the COVID-19 virus and also genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19.

Each vaccine helps your body create proteins that can then help your body build B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes to fight COVID-19 if you’re infected with the virus. So getting a vaccine is like giving your immune system the answers before it takes a big test.

Pretty cool how our bodies work, right?

How a Vaccine Can Help Your Community

So now you have a better understanding of what vaccines are, how they work in our bodies, and how they’re made.

But you might be thinking, “Monique, can a vaccine really help COVID-19 to stop spreading?”
Here’s the thing: COVID-19 is here to stay just like other pathogens. However, there are ways we can stop transmission by our bodies reaching immunity and our communities reaching herd immunity.

What is herd immunity?

First, immunity is your body’s ability to resist pathogens. This is normally done through your adaptive immune system by either natural infection with the pathogen or immunization with a vaccine. Herd immunity occurs when enough people in a community or global population become immune to a disease so that it’s less likely to spread. 

Herd immunity is achieved through natural immunity (when someone catches the pathogen and gets better) or vaccinations. It’d be detrimental to our global population if everyone caught COVID-19 and we achieved herd immunity through natural immunity, so this is why our communities were adamant about distributing vaccines.

The more people that can gain immunity through vaccines, the less likely an infected person will transmit the disease. This is also important because not everyone can get vaccinated. For example, children currently can’t receive the COVID-19 vaccine because not enough research has been done in this population.

Achieving herd immunity can be dynamic and complex because a number of factors are at play. One factor at play is time. While immunity to some pathogens can be life-long, immunity to other pathogens can change overtime. This is because pathogens can mutate to avoid antibodies or cells that make the protective antibodies are lost. An example of this is the flu virus: vaccination has to occur every year because the virus mutates.

In addition to herd immunity, another important term to understand is viral load.

What is viral load?

Viral load is how much virus you have in your body. It’s the quantity of the virus in a given volume of body fluid (normally blood plasma), and it’s measured as the number of virus particles per milliliter of body fluid (particles/mL). Your viral load can help to determine how severe your symptoms will be and the outcome of the infection. Viral loads can be measured through swabs like nasal or throat swabs.

Now picture two scenarios:

  1. You’re in a room with only one person who has a pathogen. Both of you aren’t wearing masks and aren’t social distancing. You’ll likely be infected with the pathogen, but you’ll receive a small quantity of the pathogen. Your symptoms will likely be mild, and hopefully your adaptive immune system will be able to fight the pathogen.
  2. You’re in a room with eight people who are infected with a pathogen. Nobody is wearing a mask or social distancing. You’ll be infected with the pathogen AND you’ll receive eight times the viral load than if you were just in the room with one infected person. Your symptoms will likely be very severe and you may even become critically ill.

This is why researchers stress the importance of social distancing and masks. But what about vaccines?

A vaccine can help to keep your viral load down even after you’ve been exposed to COVID-19. Because you received the vaccine, your immune system has the tools it needs to fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus. You’ll have mild to no symptoms if you’re exposed to the virus. The vaccine also reduces the likelihood that you’ll spread the virus to other people. 

If you’ve spent time on social media, there’s a lot of noise and misinformation being spread. So let’s debunk some myths about vaccines!

Truth or Myth? Debunking Common Myths Regarding Vaccines

1. The mRNA vaccines don’t alter your DNA.

TRUTH. 

Even though the COVID-19 vaccines are the first commercially available mRNA vaccines, mRNA vaccines have been actively researched for decades. The mRNA from the vaccine never enters your cells’ nuclei and doesn’t alter or interact with your DNA.

2. Vaccines aren’t a cure.

TRUTH.

While vaccines work to build-up your immune system so you can fight infections faster, they can’t cure COVID-19. In fact, it takes weeks after you get a vaccine to produce T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes. So you can get infected with SARS-CoV-2 before or immediately after vaccination and still get sick. However, the vaccine won’t cause your illness. You’ll get sick because you didn’t give the vaccine enough time to boost your adaptive immune system and provide your body with protection.

3. You can’t catch COVID-19 from the vaccine.

TRUTH.

mRNA vaccines don’t contain a live virus and can’t cause disease in someone who received the vaccine. Therefore, you can’t catch COVID-19 from the vaccine.

Pros and Cons of Being Vaccinated

We’ve debunked some myths about the COVID-19 vaccine. But now let’s look at the pros and cons of actually receiving the vaccine.

Pros

  • Vaccines will reduce the risk of you becoming ill from a pathogen. They will also help to reduce your risk of infecting your family and communities.
  • The COVID-19 vaccines have undergone clinical trials to show that they’re safe and effective.
  • The COVID-19 vaccine plays an important role in ending this pandemic. Vaccines have shown promise in helping to eradicate a number of pathogens that infected our ancestors.

Cons

  • You may experience side effects from the vaccine like pain at the injection site, tiredness, headache, nausea, and/or fever or chills.
  • Anaphylaxis (life-threatening allergic reaction) occurred in 11 cases per million doses as reported by the CDC from individuals who received the Pfizer BioNTec vaccine. Other allergic reactions caused individuals to have trouble breathing, rash, or low blood pressure.
  • Unexplained deaths occurred in 23 elderly people who received the Pfizer BioNTec vaccine in Norway, but more studies need to be conducted to determine if the death was caused by the vaccine or an underlying condition.

It’s important to educate yourself on the pros and cons of vaccines so you can advocate for yourself and your health. It’s also important to do your research to determine what would be best for you. While COVID-19 is here to stay, it’s reassuring to know that vaccines have been manufactured and researched to help to end this pandemic.

Should You Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

Hopefully, you’ve gained a greater understanding of what vaccines are, how they work in your body, and how they’re manufactured. But should you get the COVID-19 vaccine?

It depends. 

You’ll need to talk with your healthcare provider about this. Some people have severe allergic reactions to the ingredients used in vaccines. However, I hope the information in this blog was able to arm you with the scientific information you need to make a decision for yourself.

While you’re deciding if vaccination is right for you or waiting for your turn to be vaccinated, continue practicing other forms of prevention like washing your hands, social distancing, and wearing masks in public areas. Also, take care of your emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental health. Visit my blog to learn steps you can take to take care of your holistic health. Together, I know we can get through this pandemic.

To follow my holistic health journey, follow me on Instagram.

Cheers! Monique Stephanie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: