With so much information out there about COVID-19 and most recently, its vaccines, it can be difficult to decipher what's true and what's not. With the COVID-19 vaccination program underway in Canada, we felt it was important to get down to the bottom of the truth. We had the chance to speak with Dr. Christine Prudhoe, MD, CCFP, a family doctor based in Ottawa and get you answers to some of the most common questions and misconceptions surrounding the vaccines.
First off, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
My name is Christine Prudhoe and I'm a family doctor working in the Ottawa area since 2019. I grew up in Dartmouth, NS before moving to Ottawa for medical school. I then lived in Kingston for a brief two years before moving back to Ottawa.
I have always loved the intensity of my work-life balance, from taking care of inpatients and rushing around the emergency departments and various clinics to making the most of the wonderful outdoor activities that Ottawa has to offer all year round.
The last twelve months have been a little work-heavy on the scale but I can’t wait for things to open up again so I can relace those hiking boots.
What do you think about the COVID-19 vaccines that are currently available to us?
I am ecstatic about all three vaccines available in Canada so far! Thus far, we have seen on a global scale that they are safe and effective against severe illness, which is what matters most. There is a fair amount of confusing media-related information related to the efficacy of the vaccines that have been approved so far.
The predominant effectiveness we see on a daily basis ranges widely from percentages in the 60s to 90s. This can clearly create skepticism surrounding which vaccine to get and encourage “vaccine shopping”. These numbers should not be the measure of how "good" a vaccine is. We need to look at how many hospitalizations and severe illnesses they prevent and all of them show almost 100%, which is truly amazing one year into this virtually unprecedented pandemic. These vaccines are our ticket to getting some sort of normalcy back into our lives and I welcome being poked by any of them.
In fairly simple terms, can you explain how the vaccine works?
There are multiple ways vaccines work but as for most of the COVID-19 vaccines, they work by introducing a piece of RNA or DNA from the SARS-CoV-2 virus to your body's cells (without ever affecting your own DNA). Once your cell sees this, it creates a harmless protein that looks similar to COVID-19. Our body recognizes that this new protein should not be there and learns how to destroy it without ever infecting the individual.
If you are then exposed to COVID-19, your immune system recognizes its protein and remembers how to attack and kill it off quickly. The second shot gives a booster to remind your immune system, making it more effective and longer-lasting.
If you do not get the vaccine, your body has to see the diseased cells which can cause you to become sick before it goes through the "learned" process of how to kill off those cells infected with the virus. If you have a poor immune system, your body cannot do this quickly or potentially may not be able to at all.
Recent reports say that only 71% of those in the 80+ age group in Canada have signed up for the vaccine. Why do you think there are some Canadians who are not willing to get the vaccines?
I think there are multiple factors at play here. Never have we had such a race for scientists to work so quickly to produce something so desperately needed by the greater public. People often think the vaccine was rushed. This is again mostly due to the enormous amount of misinformation (and/or fake news) that is spread, especially through social media. A powerful tool often wielded by the wrong hands; influencing people’s opinions.
There is also the misconception that COVID-19 is just like any previous cold virus, and this kind of thinking downplays the potentially devastating consequences of this particular virus. I have yet to see a single patient infected with influenza/RSV this year, which are winter respiratory viruses that historically flood our hospitals. Instead, I have cared for COVID-19 infected individuals, which proves that it can easily spread despite higher sanitary and public health measures, and that is with minimal experience with the new Variants of Concerns (VOCs) which have begun the spread rapidly throughout our province and country.
I also unfortunately think due to the frequent news updates about specific vaccines and changes in recommendations, it can be quite confusing to know what is safe. With everything happening in real-time, the government of Canada wants to give the most up-to-date information, which unfortunately can feel quite contradictory at times. However, I do strongly recommend you keep up to date with information on a weekly basis and rest assured that the government is doing its best to keep the public and each individual safe.
Some people have reported experiencing side effects after receiving the vaccine. Could you speak a bit about that?
We can always expect side effects with any medication, vaccine or even food products - the COVID vaccines are no exception. We all know of that lactose intolerant person who eats that piece of cheese maybe they shouldn't have... there is a short-term gain with some potentially unwanted side effects that resolve.
The COVID vaccine is allowing our immune system to practice before it is exposed to the actual COVID 19 virus, therefore there can be some muscle aches, general fatigue - because your immune system is hard at work. Most of these side effects are insignificant compared to what the actual virus could do to your body.
Many women accept risks (such as blood clots) when they take the birth control pill, but you trust the advice being given to you in order for you to make an educated decision. When the Government learns about a potentially dangerous side effect, they are quick to put vaccinations on hold for certain age groups until we can obtain more information. This does not mean the vaccine is unsafe, it just means more time and studies are required to clear it.
One thing is for certain, an older person has a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID than the rare chance of a side effect from the vaccine.
For the Canadians who think that the vaccine development was rushed to market/not properly tested, what would you say to them?
These types of vaccines have been studied for many years but have not had the avenue to move forward. The bureaucracy to obtain approval for studies of new products is a logistical nightmare and it is often difficult to recruit enough study participants once you do have your product approved.
When you have a virus spreading through every country in the world and in your everyday life, both of those roadblocks are removed, or at least eased. We have now had the opportunity to witness these vaccines deployed on a global scale for the past few months, so hopefully people can start to feel a little safer. Vaccine technology has been around for hundreds of years - the companies are experts in their field and we need to place our trust in them.
What 3 things would you recommend someone say to a loved one or family member who is hesitant about taking the vaccine?
- All vaccines are almost 100% effective against hospitalizations and serious illness. You wouldn't care about getting a common cold, so our overall goal should not be avoiding a runny nose or a cough.
- Get the first vaccine offered to you - do not try to pick or choose, otherwise it will take longer to get back to some sort of normalcy.
- If you are thinking about pregnancy, do not put off getting the vaccine. If you become pregnant and get infected with COVID, that will pose a much higher risk to you and the baby. Our current guidelines recommend giving the vaccine to someone at any stage of pregnancy.