THE FIGHT AGAINST COVID-19: MASKS OR VACCINES?
By Ore Taiwo Makinde
In the fight against the ravaging virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic, what would you prefer to protect yourself? A face mask or a vaccine? Several months have gone by since the lockdown in 2019 following the surge of new cases and deaths from the dreaded virus. Everything seemingly went back to normal after the lockdown but events have evolved so rapidly in the last few weeks. Virtually every day, we hear of someone dying; someone from the COVID-19 and others from other illnesses. The second wave is here, right here in Nigeria and probably a deadlier strain. What are we doing about it?
Wearing face masks 24/7
I had an interesting encounter a few days ago. After leaving work, I discovered I needed to withdraw some money from the ATM. I parked my car outside the bank and walked into the premises. It was after office hours. Next, I was accosted by three security guards who asked about my face mask. Now all of them were wearing their masks on their chins. I immediately returned to my car without a fuss, picked my mask and wore it. However, I couldn’t help asking the guards, “why are other persons in the same premises (apparently bank staff) not wearing any masks”? I also questioned, “why are you wearing your masks on your chin rather than on your noses and mouths”? One of the guards retorted,” Is it possible to wear this mask on one’s nose 24/7? What would be your response? What protective tool would work for you all day long without duress?
Risky Lifestyle and Behavior
When another person dies from the COVID-19 virus, it should reawaken the sense of responsibility for oneself and others by adhering to the safety protocols that help guide against the spread of the virus. This entails wearing your face mask correctly, hand hygiene and avoiding crowded, tight spaces but is this enough?
Practically everyone seems to be flaunting these rules. Chin-masks, hand-shakes, hugs, parties, supposedly COVID-negative individuals crossing borders with false COVID-19 results, denial of the existence of the virus and the list of risky behaviour grows longer. Should we call this ignorance or irresponsibility?
How about unhealthy lifestyles which are linked to chronic non-communicable diseases also referred to as lifestyle-related diseases resulting in poor immunity? Comorbidities such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease worsen the outcomes of the COVID-19 infection and these are preventable. Behavioural change certainly does not come easily.
Increasing risk of COVID-19 infections
On the other hand, our front-liners in the medical field; doctors, nurses are more at risk for contracting the disease and dying. Worse still is the poor access to care following a diagnosis of the COVID-19 disease. Getting to the hospital and not getting prompt attention because of the overwhelmed medical staff and over-stretched facilities including oxygen. Is there another solution to fighting this disease? Could it possibly be the COVID-19 vaccine?
There have been several rumours and propaganda about the approved COVID-19 vaccines. However, I would like to share with us some scientific information that can help us to dispel whatever fears or myths we have before the vaccine finally gets to us.
Vaccine-Preventable Deaths (VPDs) are numerous. They are largely communicable illnesses that can be easily transmitted from one person to the other through close contact, inhalation of spores and also during pregnancy. Some Vaccine-preventable diseases include:
Pertussis (Whooping cough)
Flu (Haemophilus influenzae)
Vaccines are not new. Vaccines have been around for ages now and are known to save millions of lives from preventable deaths every year.
Vaccines have the potential to eradicate VPDs. Over time, the high coverage of several communities with vaccines against VPDs has blocked their transmission resulting in fewer deaths. The smallpox vaccine led to the eradication of smallpox and polio has almost been eradicated because of the polio vaccine.
The goal of developing the COVID-19 vaccine is to diffuse the toxic effects of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 50 COVID-19 vaccine candidates are in clinical trials. Although a lot of work is underway with these trials, there is sufficient data to help the vaccine agencies to monitor and quickly detect any safety issues with the vaccine. The goal is to degrade the virus such that it is unable to cause symptoms that go beyond the mild flu.
Vaccines are mostly safe. Side-effects could occur on taking any vaccine but this is a normal sign that indicates your body is building its immunity. These side-effects are usually mild and short-lived. Several individuals are scared of taking the new vaccine because of the possibility of adverse effects. A video of a nurse who supposedly came down with Bell’s Palsy (a condition which leads to a droop on a side of the face) went viral some weeks ago, scaring people more.
It is important to know that direct contact with several viruses can lead to Bell’s palsy without even taking the vaccine. However, it is an uncommon illness and is less likely to be a common adverse effect of the COVID-19 vaccine. The Bell’s facial palsy is usually reversible and the benefits of taking the vaccine is likely to far outweigh the risks.
Conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccine are questionable and have no basis. Such theories were postulated during the Spanish flu pandemic, the swine flu outbreak, the smallpox pandemic and during several other outbreaks. The safety of the COVID-19 vaccine is a top priority of the WHO and other health agencies responsible for approving the COVID-19 vaccine. As a result, medico-legal consequences could arise if any of these agencies ignore the medical ethics guiding the development, distribution and vaccination process.
Access to vaccination does not preclude the adoption of general hygiene. The first thoughts that may come to mind are that once COVID-19 is eradicated, we can go back to our old ways. However, what exactly should we not stop doing after the pandemic? Hand hygiene, cough etiquette as exemplified by sneezing and coughing into the elbow, environmental sanitation are protocols that must be maintained even after the pandemic is contained. If not, another pandemic is bound to surface in another few years.
In conclusion, vaccination is a highly effective means of preventing VPDs and hopefully, this will eventually include the SARS-CoV-2 virus and contain the COVID-19 disease. Pending the time, the COVID-19 vaccine gets to us, let us adhere strictly and consistently to the safety protocols that have been recommended for us.
Listen to a podcast explaining the path of vaccine development to a safe and effective COVID-19 virus.
Dr Ore Taiwo Makinde is a Consultant Family Physician and Board-certified Lifestyle Medicine Physician.