UP Health Sciences experts break down the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines

13 July 2021

As more South Africans become eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, University of Pretoria (UP) experts Professor Tivani Mashamba-Thompson, Deputy Dean of Research and Postgraduate Studies in the Faculty of Health Sciences, and Prof Veronica Ueckermann, Adjunct Professor: Department Internal Medicine, offer a realistic rundown of the benefits of vaccines.

“Vaccines reduce the risk of infection but, most importantly, they reduce your chances of getting severe disease and dying from COVID-19,” says Prof Ueckermann on the main benefit of vaccines. Prof Mashamba-Thompson agrees, saying that COVID-19 could pose a grave threat to unvaccinated people. “Some who get the virus can become severely ill, which could lead to hospitalisation or death. Others who survive have ongoing health problems several weeks or longer after being infected. The COVID-19 vaccine has been shown to prevent severe illness and death.”

However, it is important to remember, Prof Mashamba-Thompson adds, that vaccines don’t necessarily stop anyone from spreading or being infected with SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. “So we are all still at high risk of infection and of infecting others, regardless of our vaccination status,” she explains.

Still, getting the jab has both short- and long-term advantages. “The immediate benefit – within two weeks of full vaccination – is that you will be protected against severe disease and death from infection,” Prof Ueckermann says. “In the long term, benefits include herd immunity, the resumption of travel and the ability to interact with loved ones in a less restricted manner.”

Many people have also wondered about the effects of the vaccine on foetuses or newborn babies whose mothers have got the jab. “There is a growing body of evidence that COVID-19 vaccination is safe during pregnancy,” says Prof Ueckermann. “This is important because pregnant women are at increased risk for severe disease.”

Women who take the vaccine while pregnant will pass antibodies on to their unborn babies. “Recent reports have shown that pregnant women who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 have antibodies during their third trimester and pass the antibodies on to their foetuses, which could help protect them after birth,” explains Prof Mashamba-Thompson. “Evidence also shows that breastfeeding mothers who have been vaccinated have antibodies in their breast milk, which could also help protect their babies. Though, more research is needed to determine the level of protection these antibodies may provide to unborn and newborn babies.”

With some lockdown measures still in place, many cannot wait to engage with friends and family again. So can we safely get together with loved ones after being vaccinated? “We should be able to reconnect with friends and family who are fully vaccinated,” says Prof Mashamba-Thompson. “However, if you are in a situation where there is a mixture of friends and family who are vaccinated and unvaccinated, then you need to wear masks and practise physical distancing.”

Reconnecting with friends and family has been allowed in many countries where most of the population has been vaccinated, says Prof Ueckermann. “No one is safe until everyone is safe. This is the slogan behind the drive to get all nations vaccinated. Once we are all protected, then we can hopefully interact with one another in a more ‘normal’ way.”

Vaccination also opens up the opportunity for travel. “Several international travel agencies have indicated that you will not be allowed to travel without evidence of vaccination – this is to curb the emergence and spread of new variants,” says Prof Ueckermann. For now though, it is not advisable to travel internationally and between provinces until you are fully vaccinated, cautions Prof MashambaThompson adds. “If you are not fully vaccinated and must travel, follow national and international travel recommendations.”

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