The Covid-19 vaccine is shrouded in myths and facts. Some of the questions that most people in Kenya are asking include:
What are the side-effects of the Astra Zeneca Covid-19 vaccine?
First, it is important to remember that all vaccines and drugs have side effects. For example, paracetamol has some serious but rare side effects; yet we all use it even in infants. Medicine is always about balancing of benefits and risks.
The side effects of all the Covid-19 vaccines are similar and probably result from the body’s immune response to the spike protein of the virus is injected on your arm.
— Most vaccine recipients will have a mild sore arm and rarely severe. It resolves within one to two days.
—Some people will have swollen lymph nodes in the armpit on the side where the vaccine is given, but that too resolves without any complications.
—Some people may have more general side effects, of which fatigue/malaise or headache are the most common.
—A smaller portion of people have fever or chills for a day or two. You can use paracetamol or other pain and fever medication like brufen to ease the symptoms.
—Serious side effects are very rare. A recent discussion in Europe about people having clots occurred because about two people out of a million had clots, but that was the same rate of occurrence expected even in population of people who have not been vaccinated.
Also, remember that blood clots are a known and very worrying complication of Covid-19 itself.
Can I get Covid-19 from the vaccine?
No. The vaccine is not a live virus and it does not have the ability to cause Covid-19. It will not give a positive PCR or antigen test.
Since the vaccine induces antibodies against the spike protein, it will result in antibodies against that, but currently antibody testing is not being undertaken in Kenya.
Can I get Covid-19 after being vaccinated?
Yes. The AstraZeneca vaccine is about 60 to per cent effective at preventing Covid-19 but about 100 percent effective in preventing death and severe disease.
That means that after the vaccine you can get Covid-19, but if you do, it would be milder. It is also important to remember that the protection starts only 10 to 14 days after the first shot, so if you are exposed one week after the shot you are still completely vulnerable to Covid-19, meaning other recommended preventive measures must be adhered to even after vaccination. After those first two weeks, the level of protection builds up until two weeks after you have had your second dose.
What if I have underlying conditions such as diabetes or HIV?
The vaccine is even much more important because of your high risk of having severe Covid-19 without prevention. It is true that the vaccine might not work as well but it still works well enough to make it worthy.
What if I am pregnant?
Pregnant women were not included in the initial studies so some have avoided the vaccine but World Health Organisation and CDC recommend its use in pregnancy.
It is not a live virus vaccine so there is no reasonable likelihood of problems. It is also known that there is increased risk of more severe disease if you get Covid-19 during pregnancy.
Thus, it is an individual choice to balance perceived risk to the unborn baby and likely benefit but current evidence has not shown unwanted effects when used at any stage (early or late) of pregnancy.
Can I receive the vaccine if I am breastfeeding?
Yes. There is no possibility of harm to the baby and perhaps the baby will receive helpful antibodies in the breast milk, just as the mother’s milk helps prevent other types of infection.
Does the vaccine work for elderly people?
Even though there were countries earlier that didn’t use the vaccine in people over 65, the evidence accumulated shows there is protection at all ages. Since older people are at increased risk, they should have the jab and that is why the Health ministry has included them in the first vaccination phase.
Does the vaccine work for the variants that are in South Africa and other places?
Current evidence suggests that the Astra Zeneca vaccine does not work as well for the South African variant compared to its effectiveness on the original virus and that other vaccines are also less effective. However, they still appear to prevent severe disease and death. Thus, we should go for the vaccine now.
Drugmakers are working on updated vaccines with greater effectiveness against emerging variants. Updated recommendations should be available in coming months.
What if I have allergies to foods or medicines?
The only contraindication is known allergy to a vaccine component (such as PEG). There are no plant or animal products in the vaccine, so there is no problem related to food allergies or drug allergies.
Likewise, if you have allergies to medicines, you should still receive the vaccine. All vaccination sites are well prepared to handle serious acute reactions at the time of vaccine administration.
Prof Adam is an Infectious Diseases Specialist
Dr Boniface Mativa, Interim Chief Medical officer at Aga Khan University Hospital Nairobi