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'They work and are safe': UBC expert addresses COVID-19 'vaccine hesitancy' in Canada

"Many are concerned about whether or not the vaccine will work, about short- and long-term safety of the vaccine, about its “newness” and the unknowns that come with a new vaccine."
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In December, Vancouver Is Awesome shared a poll from the not-for-profit Angus Reid Institute that asked Canadians how willing they would be to take a vaccine once it is available. 

While many Canadians are still apprehensive about getting immunized against coronavirus (COVID-19), a recent poll suggests that the majority are willing to roll up their sleeves. 

In December, Vancouver Is Awesome shared a poll from the not-for-profit Angus Reid Institute that asked Canadians how willing they would be to take a vaccine once it is available. 

At that time, 48 per cent of respondents said they would take the vaccine as soon as it is available to them. 

Angus Reid polled Canadians again this month and found that a firm majority--60 per cent of respondents--are now willing to be immunized. 

But while more people are willing to take the vaccine, 23 per cent of respondents indicated they would prefer to wait, while 12 per cent reported they would not get vaccinated and five per cent remained unsure.

The number of those who outright say they will not be vaccinated is below one-in-ten, for example, in British Columbia (8%) and Ontario (8%) but is one-in-five in Alberta (20%) and Saskatchewan (19%). In those two latter provinces, just half of residents say they would like to be vaccinated right away.

Why are some people hesitant about taking a COVID-19 vaccine?

Dr. Julie Bettinger, an associate professor in UBC’s faculty of medicine, is a vaccine safety scientist at the Vaccine Evaluation Center at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute and a member of the National Advisory Committee on Immunization. 

For Bettinger, the "newness" of the vaccine causes reluctance for some people. "Many are concerned about whether or not the vaccine will work, about short- and long-term safety of the vaccine, about its “newness” and the unknowns that come with a new vaccine," she explains in a news release.

Bettinger adds that most of these concerns can be addressed. Further, the two vaccines Canada is currently using--the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines-- work incredibly well.

"The clinical trial results were striking in terms of efficacy. We expect to see some decrease in terms of how well these vaccines will work when used in real-life settings, but given how well they performed in clinical trial settings they will still be very effective," she says. 

What can be done to combat vaccine hesitancy?

Currently, British Columbia isn't seeing an issue with vaccine hesitancy since there is such a limited supply of vaccines. That said, Bettinger notes that improving vaccine literacy--especially among children--is key to combating the issue down the road.

"It’s important to educate yourself and your friends and family about the immune system and how vaccines work. Recognize and counter vaccine misinformation and disinformation, in-person and online," she advises. 

"There is no debate in the scientific community about vaccines. They work and are safe."

Will Canada reach herd immunity if not everyone is vaccinated against COVID-19?

Bettinger says that health officials don't know if any of the vaccines will lead to herd immunity. "We know they prevent symptomatic disease, but we don’t know if they stop transmission of COVID-19. If they can stop transmission, then it would require high vaccine coverage to reach herd immunity."

Short-term side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines

For the most part, Berttinger says people can expect a sore arm after receiving the vaccine. And while some may feel like they are sick for two or three days--like they have a cold or the flu--they will generally feel fine after that time. "These are normal side effects to the vaccine and demonstrate the immune system is responding."

That being said, some people do have allergic reactions following vaccination. However, Bettinger says this is expected and reactions "are not occurring at a rate higher than what we would expect with a new vaccine."

Long-term side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines

In terms of long-term side effects from the vaccine, Bettinger says "we don’t have the data and will need to continue to monitor to ensure the safety of COVID-19 vaccines."

With this in mind, she adds, "We also don’t know the long-term effects of being infected with COVID-19. But what is emerging shows there are long-term effects from COVID-19 infection, such as “brain fog,” which severely alter an individual’s health.

"Based on what we know about how COVID-19 vaccines work, we would not expect them to have long-term adverse effects."