By Adam Jarrett
Despite what seems to be a losing battle against COVID-19, the world is on the verge of breaking the stranglehold that this pandemic has had on us for the past year. Unlike the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed as many as 50 million people worldwide and eventually disappeared as a result of herd immunity, or HIV/AIDS, from which 1 million people die each year despite medications that can manage the disease, COVID-19, which so far claimed 2 million lives worldwide, has the potential to be controlled and maybe even eradicated – if our society follows the science.
Researchers in the United States have successfully developed two vaccines, with more on the way that are both effective and safe. So why, especially in the middle of a pandemic that has already killed nearly 400,000 Americans, am I concerned that these vaccines won’t stop this pandemic?
I am deeply worried that misinformation – or what we have come to call an internet “infodemic” – is thwarting some of our scientific efforts to encourage everyone to get vaccinated. Let me give you a personal example: Two weeks ago, my wife awoke with swelling on one side of her face. She assumed this swelling was an allergic reaction because she recently developed a nut allergy that is triggered by seemingly innocuous foods, such as Oreos. However, as the swelling worsened, it was obvious to me that this was not an allergic reaction, but facial palsy, or Bell’s palsy. The appearance of swelling on one side of the face is a common misperception when paralysis occurs on the opposite side.
In the time of COVID-19, my wife did what most patients with medical issues do: schedule a telemedicine visit with her primary care provider. Her doctor reassured her that studies have shown that 75% of patients with Bell’s palsy recover full nerve function without any intervention within three months, but that treatment with steroids increases the likelihood of full recovery to 85%. Following her doctor’s advice, my wife began steroid treatment.
At the same time as my wife was experiencing Bell’s palsy, the staff at Holy Name Medical Center (where I am chief medical officer) was busy vaccinating thousands of healthcare workers against COVID-19. With Internet chatter circulating that the vaccine increases a person’s risk of Bell’s palsy, many of our friends and family wrongly assumed that I had obtained the vaccine for her and that she suffered a complication. In truth, my wife is not a healthcare professional and has not been vaccinated yet, so the Bell’s palsy was an unfortunate coincidence. She even joked that maybe I had passed on the complication because I had received my first dose of the vaccine. In fact, Bell’s palsy affects about 30 people per 100,000 each year, often without an obvious cause. My wife became one of those 30.
This story illustrates how extremely important it is that we, as a society, do everything we can to understand the risks and benefits of healthcare therapeutics and not assume a cause-and-effect relationship where one may not exist.
I am embarrassed to admit that if my wife had been vaccinated, I may have blamed it for her Bell’s palsy. However, this is not how science works. One patient having a specific outcome does not prove or disprove a cause. This is why we must allow our scientists and researchers to perform the extraordinary work they do, and why we must be wary of internet reports that proclaim erroneously that the COVID-19 vaccine causes Bell’s palsy – or even infertility, as has also been speculated.
In medicine, unfortunately, bad, or even tragic, events happen. Although such an occurrence may seem related to a medical treatment, one does not cause the other. Some children develop autism, and, yes, it does happen after being vaccinated, but there is clear scientific evidence that autism is not caused by vaccines. And, yes, some women – and even men – will experience a fertility issue after being vaccinated against COVID-19, but the normal incidence of infertility is approximately 10% for women and 7% for men. Taking this a step further, even if we vaccinate the 54 million women of child-bearing age in the U.S., more than 5 million of them will have fertility issues naturally. They will not develop infertility due to the vaccine.
This terrible coronavirus pandemic has impacted almost every American – whether from the disease itself, its economic repercussions, mental health consequences, or its effects on our children’s education. However, the end to this tragic event is within reach. Please listen to the science, not to internet misinformation or conspiracy theories, and choose to receive this miraculous vaccine. Make sure your children receive it when it’s available to them.
In fact, let’s use this opportunity to update all our own adult age-appropriate vaccines, as well as ensuring our children receive theirs. Universal vaccination is a key component to curtailing not only the effects of this pandemic but in preventing any future disease outbreaks.
By the way, the good news is that my wife has already regained 95% of her facial functioning. She will be vaccinated against COVID-19 within the next several months.
Adam Jarrett, M.D., M.S., is the chief medical officer of Holy Name Medical Center and the author of “In the Time of COVID: One Hospital’s Struggles and Triumphs.”
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