As the new year gets underway we all hoped that Covid-19 would have been well supressed and we could begin the long road to rebuilding our lives but sadly that is not the case.
Too many people have tested positive, are sick and sadly have died from this awful virus. As we all redouble our efforts to flatten the curve again we do so in the knowledge that there will be brighter days ahead. It was heartening to see Dr. Catherine Motherway administer the first vaccine in the Mid-West to Rosaleen O’Brien a nurse in the Emergency Department of University Hospital Limerick. By the end of this week 32,000 frontline healthcare workers and 3000 residents and staff in long term care facilities will have received the Covid-19 vaccine.
Over the past two hundred years in Ireland, apart from clean water, vaccines have saved more lives than any other medical intervention. The World Health Organisation tells us that 207,500 people died from measles last year, the same measles that most of us would consider a pretty mild affliction. Measles is a disease that kills people regularly. Even in the 1970’s an average of seven children died every year from measles here in Ireland. Many survivors were left with permanent disabilities including deafness or brain damage.
Then something close to miraculous happened in 1985. Ireland began a vaccination programme against measles. The number of cases here declined dramatically, from 10,000 in 1985 to just 201 in 1987. It was the clearest example in recent history of the effects of a vaccine at first hand. Everyone of us who lived through that era could only draw one conclusion – vaccines work.
Another near miracle was also happening around 1985. The internet was being born. Back then it was a tiny network supporting a community of researchers, with access to the general public being a few years away. When that access came, and what it empowered us to do, changed humanity forever. It gave us all a voice to say the things we wanted to say, in a domain where we could reach thousands of people with the click of a button. In Clare, we were one of the first Counties in Ireland to embrace this technology when Ennis became Ireland’s Information Age Town and every house was given a computer and access to the Internet. Little did we know back then that the two worlds of medical science and information technology would eventually collide early in the 21st century, with pretty alarming consequences.
Jonathan Swift once lamented that “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it”. Falsehoods about the Measles Mumps Rubella vaccine began circulating on the internet about 20 years ago. With the advent of social media in recent years, the falsehoods took flight in earnest with the truth always struggling to catch up. They are now having a devastating effect on vaccination rates. In 2018, Europe recorded 84,462 cases of measles, up from only 5,273 cases in 2016. In 2018 the UK lost its ‘measles-free’ designation from the WHO, three years after the measles virus was eliminated from the country. Here in Ireland there are concerns that we could lose ours, with the number of cases having risen by 260 per cent, increasing from 25 cases in 2017 to 90 cases in 2019.
There’s a lesson to be learned here. Blatantly false information circulating on social media caused thousands of parents worldwide to deny their children the MMR vaccine and people suffered from a completely avoidable and often serious illness. As we prepare to embark on another life- saving global vaccination programme to rid ourselves of Covid-19, we need to learn from the mistakes of the past.
In the context of the upcoming Covid-19 vaccination programme the WHO has already flagged what it describes as an “infodemic”, an overabundance of information coming at us from all angles, with very little time to determine what is the truth and what is misinformation. To quote the WHO – “Without the appropriate trust and correct information, campaigns to promote effective vaccines will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive. Misinformation costs lives”.
We now more than ever need to studiously check the facts on the vaccine by using the websites of the HSE, the WHO and other trusted institutions. We shouldn’t share information without first checking if it’s accurate and based on sound scientific research. By casually sharing that social media post, or the rumour heard on the bus yesterday, we are putting lives at risk. It’s that simple.
So what do we know so far about the Covid-19 vaccination programme that we have embarked upon? What are our scientists, our healthcare professionals and our pharmaceutical regulators telling us?
Firstly, the vaccines that have been developed for use in Ireland do not entail injecting us with the Covid-19 virus. The vaccine does not give you Covid-19. Instead it contains only a snippet of the virus, one particular protein, a smart messenger in essence. It teaches our immune system to recognise that Covid-19 protein if it encounters it again, and to react by immediately shutting down infection.
Secondly, the vaccines do not alter or interact with your DNA in any way. Human cells can naturally break down and get rid of that messenger protein soon after they have finished using the instructions.
Thirdly, the vaccine development has not been rushed, no corners have been cut. The process of testing and approving these vaccines will be as robust as it was for any vaccine in the past. The timeline for developing Covid-19 vaccines was shortened considerably because of the massive global investment made in researching the vaccine, and the pooling of the greatest scientific minds on the planet, all working towards a common goal. In addition, because of the massive numbers of people already infected with Covid-19, it was possible to carry out large clinical trials in a short timeframe.
In summary, these vaccines are the result of an unprecedented global collaboration to address the global challenge of our lifetime. This is all of humanity working together for the right reasons and in all our interests, perhaps something we need to do a little more of.
I will be taking a vaccine the minute I have access to one. Having read the advice given by the HSE and WHO, I know that I’m doing the right thing for me and my family. We need to believe in science and in healthcare professionals who have our welfare at heart. We need to champion truth over misinformation.