APU Diseases Health & Fitness Infectious Diseases Nursing Opinion

Educating the Public About Vaccine Efficacy and Safety

By Dr. Carol Hoban,
Faculty Member, Health Sciences

Ensuring the public that the coronavirus vaccine is safe and effective is key to helping Americans feel comfortable getting vaccinated against COVID-19. But education about vaccine safety and efficacy is not a new concern because many people have long-held beliefs that vaccines will cause the disease, they will get sick from their side effects, or that vaccines will simply not protect them.

[Related: How Can We Improve the Speed of Mass COVID-19 Vaccinations?]

Public health professionals and healthcare workers, along with first responders, must be prepared to help educate the public on the safety and efficacy of the COVID vaccine along with the importance of getting vaccinated.

Educating People About How Vaccines Work

Many people believe, for example, that if they get an influenza vaccine, they will get the flu. However, vaccines are designed to establish immunity, not to produce disease. Vaccines will give our immune system a jump-start on producing antibodies to the disease, as it takes us a while to produce antibodies when we come into contact with an antigen or foreign invader.

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Getting the vaccine, which is usually an inactivated antigen, is similar to the disease but cannot produce the illness in us because it has been inactivated. Our bodies go into fight mode producing all kinds of helpful antibodies to fight off the disease. If we should encounter this disease at some point in the future, our bodies are well-prepared to fight it off.

If we don’t get the vaccine for a disease and we encounter it, our bodies will take time to produce the necessary antibodies to fight the illness. That’s why we become sick. And, depending on the disease in question, not being vaccinated can be fatal, especially to those persons with an immunocompromised immune system.

The FDA’s Vaccine Approval Process

All vaccines must be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they can be released to the general public. This means the vaccines have undergone testing in a laboratory to ensure their effectiveness. In addition, the vaccines have also been tested in clinical trials with human subjects to ensure they are safe.

Most of the time, the vaccine approval process is a lengthy one. But with COVID-19 the FDA approved emergency use authorization (EUA) to get the vaccine to the population sooner. This EUA process allows the FDA to approve a drug or medical product when life-threatening conditions occur, such as in a pandemic. Even though this process facilitated the release of the COVID vaccines, the FDA still has processes in place to ensure its standards were met before these vaccines were released. For more information on this process, visit the FDA website.

Understanding Side Effects

Of course, with any medication, drug or treatment, there is always the possibility of side effects and risks. But the risks with vaccines are minimal for those who are healthy and do not have certain allergies; the benefits far outweigh the risks. Side effects are an indication that your body is building immunity.

Some people will have a mild reaction to a vaccine, such as a sore arm where the vaccine was given, or some mild redness at the site of the injection. Some people will have no side effects at all. When someone does experience side effects, most often they will be mild.

If you experience any side effects, you might talk to your doctor about taking an over-the -counter medication, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to relieve the discomfort. However, if your side effects do not abate in a few days or appear to be getting worse, call your doctor. For more information on the possible side effects, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Role of Vaccines in Preventing the Public Spread of Diseases

Today, vast numbers of people have not seen or been exposed to some diseases that have been eradicated due to vaccinations. They are not aware of the effects of these diseases. For example, polio was once a scourge and a disease that had debilitating, even deadly effects. But polio has been eliminated in the United States thankfully because of vaccines. Many other childhood illnesses that once were prevalent, such as measles, mumps, rubella, and pertussis, have been eradicated due to early vaccination. However, in recent years we have seen some outbreaks of measles in unvaccinated children, which is another example of the importance of educating the public on vaccine safety.

Additional Resources to Make Informed Decisions

The CDC has numerous educational materials for the general public to answer questions about the vaccinations currently available, as well as information for healthcare providers and their patients.

You can stay up to date on the latest information about the safety and efficacy of the COVID vaccines by reading the CDC education materials noted above. Pamphlets are available free to the public on the safety and risks associated with the vaccines.

Make sure you are knowledgeable about the statistics of the disease, how many cases there are, the number of deaths, and other critical data. The CDC also has information on these statistics. You can search by your state, county, or the United States and the world.

Getting the right information to the public on the safety and efficacy of the currently available COVID vaccines is critical so we can end the pandemic and return to our normal lives. Even if you are not a high-risk candidate for coronavirus, getting vaccinated will reduce the disease numbers prevalent in the population and protect your family and friends who may be more susceptible to the virus.

Dr. Carol Hoban is a faculty member earned her Ph.D. in cellular molecular biology and physiology from Georgia State University in 2008. She earned her MPH degree in 1997 from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. Dr. Hoban has worked in maternal and child health and vaccine-preventable diseases. She was the project director for the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS) in Georgia for over six years and was also the project director for the Georgia Immunization Study for over seven years. Dr. Hoban has numerous published articles based on her work in both vaccine-preventable diseases and maternal and child health. She is also currently a peer reviewer for the Maternal and Child Health Journal.

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