Vaccine is the key to returning to normal life

5 min read
Dr Mataroria Lyndon

19 February 2021

Opinion as featured in the New Zealand Herald

This weekend we are kicking off the largest vaccination programme in our history, with the initial dose of the Covid-19 Pfizer vaccine being given to our frontline border staff.

Over the next twelve months, as more vaccine arrives in Aotearoa, we'll all have the opportunity to roll-up our sleeve, get immunised and protect ourselves and our whānau against Covid-19.

An enormous amount of work is underway behind the scenes as we gear up to start the roll-out.

Make no mistake, designing and implementing a vaccination programme on this scale is a huge logistical exercise, and it is not without challenge

It is not enough to just secure enough doses for the population. In fact, in many ways, that is the easy part.

We need to make sure all people have easy and timely access to the vaccine –prioritising it for those who are most vulnerable.

This means putting in place effective distribution channels, and having the staff trained and ready to administer it.

But more importantly, we need to drive demand, so that large numbers of Kiwis take up the opportunity to be vaccinated. This is likely to be the most challenging part of the programme.

Because while many of us will happily line up for a vaccine when our time comes, others will be more circumspect.

How we respond to this vaccine hesitancy will be key in determining our success in defeating Covid, and how quickly we can return to life as normal.

We can't ignore the fact that there are growing numbers of people who are sceptical about vaccination and some who are likely to refuse the Covid vaccine.

And while there are good reasons why someone might not be able to have the vaccine, such as allergy to the vaccine or its components, we also know there has been a growing spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories around vaccination over the last twenty years.

That is why the World Health Organisation has identified the anti-vaxx movement as one of the top ten threats to global health.

New Zealand is not immune to this movement. In fact, last year's Attitudes and Values Study found nearly one-third of Kiwis were sceptical of vaccination.

This is an alarming figure when you consider we need to reach a minimum immunisation rate of at least 60 per cent, (likely to be much higher as new more contagious Covid variants arise), if we are to achieve herd immunity and reduce deaths and hospitalisations from Covid.

So, what do we need to do?

Firstly, we must avoid demonising those who have questions or fears around vaccines, but rather address concerns through science, open lines of communications and education.

A massive public education campaign is required, with a focus on targeting those groups who we know might be especially vulnerable.

We know, for example, Māori and Pasifika traditionally have lower vaccination rates than Pākehā. We also know that they have inequitable health outcomes and are at greater risk from Covid. We cannot increase disparities through the Covid vaccine rollout too.

That is why we need to prioritise these communities and work closely with iwi, pacific church leaders, community groups and Māori and Pasifika health providers to encourage high uptake of the vaccine, and use community champions to help dispel many of the concerns that are circulating around the community.

We need to make better use of Māori and Pasifika public health leaders in the media to provide assurance and address concerns.

And we need to make receiving the vaccine as easy as possible by going out into the community rather than expecting the community to come to us.

This means mobile outreach vaccination efforts through marae, churches, workplaces, sports grounds, and into rural communities to increase access.

We also need to continually provide an assurance that the vaccine is safe and that it will protect your and your loved ones.

I know some people are concerned about how quickly the Covid vaccine has been developed and whether it has been adequately trialled and tested.

Every Covid vaccine that will be used in New Zealand has undergone extensive clinical trials.

The Pfizer vaccine, for example, was trialled on 40,000 volunteers and was independently monitored. There is real time safety data from countries that have already rolled out the vaccine overseas, and the science has been closely looked at by New Zealand health specialists before approval. No shortcuts have been taken.

It is important to remember that scientists weren't starting from scratch when developing the Covid vaccine. Scientists were already developing vaccine technologies that could quickly be developed to combat viral threats.

There are literally hundreds of coronaviruses in circulation – including four that cause the common cold.

In fact, scientists have been studying coronaviruses for decades and had been actively working on vaccines for the SARS and MERS coronavirus, which are part of the same family as Covid.

This, combined with an unprecedented level of international cooperation and funding, has allowed the science community to move at a pace that has not been seen before to develop a vaccine.

But to be clear, the process the Covid vaccine has been through is no different to that of any other vaccine before it is approved.

And while each vaccine that has been developed works slightly differently, they are all designed to trigger an immune response that creates antibodies so that if you are ever exposed to Covid, your body can effectively fight it off.

You cannot catch Covid from the vaccine. But without being vaccinated, you risk catching Covid.

And while you might be fit and healthy and not concerned about being sick, you risk passing it on to someone who is vulnerable and who might not be able to be vaccinated.

It is ok to have questions and to seek answers. Talk to your GP or other health professional, who will be able to explain how the vaccine works.

But, when the time comes, it's important that as many of us as possible receive the vaccine so we can protect ourselves, our whanau and our community and stop Covid in its tracks.

Dr Mataroria Lyndon is Co-Founder and Clinical Director for digital first primary healthcare service Tend. He completed his Masters of Public Health at Harvard University and his PhD at the University of Auckland.