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The trouble with vaccines

The first batch of Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine arrived in Canada this week among a great deal of hoopla. Scientists around the world have been racing to create an effective vaccine and major pharmaceutical giants are anxiously waiting approval from governing bodies for their newly-minted cocktails. Canada, impatient to acquire this technology, was only the third country in the world to approve the Pfizer product and the federal government is expected to do the same for the Moderna vaccine in the coming weeks. “All Canadians who want one, will get a free vaccine in the coming months of 2021,” according to Prime Minister Trudeau. The government is touting vaccination as a way out of the pandemic dilemma, but not all Canadians are anxious to roll up their sleeves. In fact, “vaccine-hesitancy” is a prevailing disposition for some Canucks whether it be for cultural, religious or philosophical reasons. An Angus Reid Institute poll conducted in September found that only 39 percent of Canadians would want to get the vaccine immediately, while another 38 percent are willing get the vaccine, but not right away. These percentiles are down from a poll conducted in July by the same organization, but the number of respondents who do not want the vaccine has remained the same, about one in seven, or 15 percent ( Not surprisingly, 61 percent of those surveyed over the age of 65 were anxious to get the shot. However, of the 39 percent who will be actively seeking the vaccine, 41 percent said they would be worried about potential side effects. Similarly, the majority of the 38 percent who did not want the vaccine as soon as it was available, cited potential long-term effects as a worrisome detail. Pfizer has declared its vaccine 95 percent effective and has documented possible side effects. Furthermore, Pfizer and Moderna are using mRNA-based technology, which is comparatively new. Rather than using a de-activated form of virus, this technology uses messenger RNA that contains a genetic message to create a specific spike protein inherent in the Covid virus. The theory is that the inoculated human will be able to recognize the virus and more readily be able to mount a defence. Testing and producing a vaccine is a complex process with a lot of uncertainties. The process of licensing a vaccine is understandably rigorous, although it appears to have been fast-tracked. Some side-effects may have been noted by Pfizer and might be expected, long-term effects aren't known, in part because of the rush to certify this product. And although mRNA technology is not supposed to affect the host's DNA, the process is still relatively new, may have some unexpected consequences years down the road. Vaccine-hesitancy is not a new phenomenon and has been with us since vaccines were first discovered. Clearly, in some cases, healthy people have suffered serious catastrophes after receiving vaccinations, although these cases are extremely rare. But history records a number of incidents where unsafe vaccines have caused harm to people—the most notorious among them might be the Cutter Laboratory incident of 1955 where live polio virus was injected into 120,000 children resulting in 51 cases of paralysis and five deaths. In another shocking example, a monkey virus, SV40 was mistakenly administered to humans through contaminated polio vaccines between 1955-63. More recently, cases of Guillain–Barré syndrome have been associated with the swine flu vaccine delivered in 1976. Another concern among the vaccine-hesitant is the presence of toxic substances like mercury in flu vaccines. Up until 2001, thimerosal (a compound that contains mercury) was used as a preservative to prevent bacterial contamination. Although no longer used in single dose flu vaccination, there is a widespread belief that this compound, when administered in combination with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and other multiple vaccinations administered too closely together, may be the cause of a worldwide increase in the rate of childhood autism. Biological and epidemiological studies, however, fail to support these claims. While a majority of Canadians support mandatory vaccinations, support for the idea is dropping even as more cases emerge daily. An Ipsos-Reid poll on the subject in May found 72 percent of Canadians supported obligatory vaccinations for the virus, but a similar poll conducted a few months later in October pegged support at 59 percent, down 13 percent. Despite the initial enthusiasm, the Trudeau government may face and uphill battle to get most Canadians on board the vaccination bus. Mandatory vaccinations are probably off the table because of the divisiveness they would cause. But the debate on social media, despite the name-calling, indicates a fulsome on-going discussion in progress, from true believers on both sides to a good number of people who are skeptical of claims made by either camp.


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