By Joandrea Santiago
The vaccine is considered as one of the most important discoveries in the field of health and medicine. It was man’s first attempt and success in preventing the disease from infecting the body before it ever occurred. Imagine if there were a vaccine for HIV or cancer? But first…
How do vaccines work?
A vaccine is commonly administered through a hypodermic needle but can also be given through the mouth or nose. It contains either a weakened or dead form of a disease or bacteria (antigens). Upon exposure, our immune system will identify them as foreign objects after which our white blood cells (lymphocytes) will produce proteins called “antibodies” that will kill the infection.
Our immune system has this amazing capacity to remember how to fight off a specific disease so that when we are exposed to it again in the future, our body remembers how to fight it off. Notice how people who previously had chickenpox are not concerned about being exposed to those who have it during chickenpox season?
The vaccine was able to trick our bodies as if it already had the full-blown disease, thus being able to finish the immunization process without costing us harm. Nevertheless, it is possible to have a mild fever or symptoms after vaccination, but compared to having the actual disease infect you, the latter would have produced a strong and dangerous illness. Note also that people with compromised immune systems (i.e., people undergoing cancer treatment or those with lupus), should be treated differently. They should follow their doctor’s advice when it comes to immunization because their reaction to the vaccine may be different or weaker.
What are the two types of vaccines?
There are two types of vaccines, live attenuated and inactivated vaccines.
Live attenuated vaccines are those that have the virus alive but very weak. When our body is exposed to a virus, i.e., the Ebola virus, the virus multiplies thousands, or sometimes hundreds of thousand times in our cells. On the other hand, a vaccine is made so that it can only reproduce to about 20 times, thus preventing severe illness. This is just enough so that our bodies can finish the immune system response to killing the disease.
On the other hand, inactivated vaccines are made from dead pieces of disease-causing matter. Because the antigens are dead, there is almost zero chance of developing a symptom or reaction. However, sometimes these vaccines need to be administered through multiple doses or more than once over a period of time because they are less effective.
Ethical Issues: If vaccines are so great, what are people fighting about?
Mandates: Some objections come about regarding vaccinations due to religious and philosophical beliefs, as well as ethical dilemmas. For example, some US states want to mandate vaccination for girls aged 11-12 of Human Papilloma Virus, which is a kind of sexually transmitted disease. The mandate raises issues on the values of abstinence and religion, and may encourage sexual activities if they know they are already immune to this disease.
However, studies have shown that individuals who practice religious or philosophical exception from taking vaccines are at a higher risk of contracting and spreading the disease to their community. Thus, there is an ongoing struggle between protecting public health and respecting individual rights.
Research and Testing: During the early development of a vaccine, tests must be made for controlled or vulnerable groups such as children or those immunocompromised. Hence, the concern arises whether it is worth the risk and ethical to expose these groups to vaccination testing.
Informed Consent: People who took part in the malaria vaccine trial in Mali had difficulty understanding the concepts of the experiments. It was not clear to the participants the possible side effects and risks that came along with testing. They were also unable to differentiate whether they were participating in “vaccination testing” or “therapy/treatment.” Informed consent requires that the participants are fully aware of the risks and the purpose of the tests they are about to undergo and receive.
Business and ethics: Ethical issues also arise from the business side of developing a vaccine because it requires millions of dollars of funding and if not deemed profitable, will not be prioritized by pharmaceuticals. For example, there is not enough incentive for pharmaceuticals in developing an Ebola vaccine because the affected is only a tiny percentage of the world population. The virus is mainly concentrated in an identifiable area and is not an airborne disease.
Access Issues: The socioeconomic status of individuals, communities, and countries also affect whether they can access vaccines. For example, people without health insurance, poor families, and developing countries without access to health facilities are unable to receive this form of preventive care. Here, the ethical question arises on whether to prioritize health care before other social issues such as poverty, crime or infrastructure development.
Public Health Agency of Canada: Immunization and Vaccines
The PHAC works with national and international health experts to provide the safest and most effective vaccination programs for Canadians. Quarterly reports, regulations, and laws for use, as well as a monitoring system, are in placed and can be accessed through its website. PHAC even has a mobile phone app called “ImmunizeCA” that gives access to vaccination schedules. It lets you record and store your family’s vaccination information, as well as provide access to updated and well-researched information about vaccination statistics and studies.
People in Canada have a choice whether to receive or refuse the vaccines, which is either for themselves or their children. If you are a healthcare provider, and if you don’t receive the flu vaccine, you are then obliged to wear a mask all the time at work during flu season.