Vaccine myths: UP Health Sciences academic separates fact from fiction

Posted on July 22, 2021

The University of Pretoria (UP) is among the first institutions in South Africa’s higher education sector to have a COVID-19 vaccination centre and, as such, is helping the Gauteng Department of Health roll out its vaccination campaign.

Yet while more South Africans become eligible to get the jab, there remains the pervading presence of vaccine scepticism, which is largely the result of various myths and misinformation.

Oupa Nkosi asked Professor Veronica Ueckermann, Adjunct Professor: Department Internal Medicine in the Faculty of Health Sciences at UP, to address some of these myths that could thwart vaccination efforts.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe?

The COVID vaccine is safe – each of the vaccines available have been through rigorous safety trials and data review boards.

Does the long-term wearing of masks have a negative impact on one’s health?

The wearing of masks is one of the critical ways in which we can protect ourselves from SARS-CoV-2. Prolonged use of N95 and surgical masks, as typically worn by healthcare workers, may have adverse effects like headaches, rash, acne and skin breakdown. Inappropriate wearing of masks or behaviours such as frequently touching your mask and your face can expose you to infection. However, face masks do not impair oxygen levels in our blood.

Does getting the COVID-19 vaccine mean that we no longer need to wear masks and take precautions?

We have to continue wearing masks after getting the vaccine. Firstly, we are nowhere near our targets of herd immunity, and although the vaccine protects against severe disease, you can still contract and spread the virus. It is therefore very important to continue our usual precautions of mask-wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene.

What are the long-term side-effects of the COVID-19 vaccine?

The most significant side-effects are usually acute and do not last long: fever, fatigue, headache, pain at the injection site and flu-like symptoms for a day or two. There are safety monitoring processes in place, the efficacy of which was well illustrated when the Johnson & Johnson vaccine roll-out was halted after the occurrence of blood clots in a small number of patients. After thorough investigation, it was found this complication occurred no more frequently than it does in the general population. To date, we are not aware of any long-term side effects, and worldwide, millions of doses have been administered.

Do those who have had the virus still need to be vaccinated?

It is still advisable to get the vaccine, yes. We do not routinely test antibodies after natural infection and even if you have a good antibody and T-cell response, it is a good idea to boost that with a vaccine.

Does the vaccine change one’s DNA after entering the cells?

Not at all. The mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) vaccines contain the recipe for the virus’s spike protein – it does not alter your DNA in any way.

Does the COVID-19 vaccine affect fertility?

There is no evidence that vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccine, cause fertility problems in females or males. 

Is it true that certain blood types have a less severe reaction to COVID-19, and that a vaccine isn’t necessary in these cases?

There is no substantial evidence that certain blood groups are protected from COVID-19 – you should vaccinate regardless of your status.

What happens if I’ve been vaccinated for chickenpox and measles, and then contract COVID-19?

Vaccination against other diseases like chickenpox and measles does not offer any protection against COVID-19. You can still get COVID-19 thereafter. COVID-19 does not render those vaccines ineffective; also, getting a vaccine cannot give you COVID.

Now that we have a vaccine for COVID-19, can vaccines for the common cold, HIV and other diseases be developed?

Vaccine research is underway for many other diseases. HIV vaccine research has been ongoing for years, but is more complicated because of the pathology of HIV, which is a retrovirus.

Does the vaccine contain a microchip that will be used to track and control individuals?

There are no microchips in the vaccine – this is a myth. 

Do 5G networks cause the coronavirus through radiation emissions?

5G does not cause coronavirus – a virus does. There are many areas that don’t have 5G yet are experiencing the pandemic. 

Why do corpses have to be wrapped in plastic bags?

Initially, wrapping bodies in plastic was a means to prevent the spread of infection – the plastic could be washed with disinfectant and was a barrier between infected corpses and the individuals handling them. The practice has since been abandoned. The World Health Organization only advises the use of body bags, as is standard for any corpse, for transfer to the mortuary. This is to avoid exposure to bodily fluids.   

Are big businesses pushing vaccines to improve profits?

The drive for vaccination is about surviving and ending the pandemic. The loss of life, loss of health and loss of finances (among many other losses) that have been caused by this pandemic is devastating. Vaccination is a way for us to move towards normality. It is to protect ourselves and our most vulnerable. It is about restoring economies, being able to see our loved ones again and easing the pressure on our healthcare systems. This is a humanitarian crisis, and that is why vaccines are being pushed. 

What is your response to the belief among some that the first phase of roll-out to healthcare workers was a secret experiment to assess the safety of the vaccine?

This is not true. Healthcare workers were part of the Johnson & Johnson trial, but by that time, there was already excellent evidence for efficacy and safety. The trial offered a platform for healthcare workers to be vaccinated quickly because a third wave was anticipated.

Do you think lockdown measures deprive people of their freedoms?

Lockdown is aimed at flattening the curve. The waves that we see in the pandemic are related to human behaviour. We have limited hospital beds, oxygen and ventilators – lockdown aims to decrease the rate of transmission and number of cases so that we can have adequate resources available to treat the ill (both those with COVID and those with non-COVID-related diseases). Lockdown can be seen as a short-term sacrifice with the aim of saving lives. It is a way to protect ourselves and vulnerable members of the community.

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