Will we stigmatise the non-vaccinated?

Just as some people cannot wear a mask due to health or disability reasons, some currently cannot get vaccinated – not until they have more information. 

A couple of days ago, I got a call from Radio New Zealand asking if I’d speak about the lack of credible vaccine information given or available to patients with compromised immunity. I said yes, as long as it was made clear that I am pro-vaccination.

Why would I not be? I’m basically a walking target for COVID-19, and it’s almost certain that contracting the virus would kill me. I want to be immunised for me, and I want to be immunised because I believe it’s the right thing to do to protect all of us.

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I didn’t wait to be contacted or even for Group 3 to be officially announced eligible. As soon as I discovered I could, I called and booked my first shot. I was nervous, but initial side effects were minimal.

If I had a dollar for every time a doctor gave me a perplexed, intense and eventually apologetic expression, I wouldn’t have to write for a living. I’m referred to as a “complex case,” no matter which medical professional you ask – and after a decade of being sick, I have a fair few numbers you could call.

Listing all the medications deployed in attempts to control my illness would be a difficult task. I’ve been a willing guinea pig acting out of desperation. These are drugs that help many, many people. Why I wasn’t one of them is unclear. Hence, my familiarity with the pinched expression of a doctor who doesn’t know how to tell me that they don’t know.

The drugs I’m left with, including immunosuppressants, give me just enough benefit to outweigh the side effects, and managing them along with my symptoms is a whole lot of research, appointments, questions and self-advocacy.

One of the words I’m all-too-familiar with is ‘contraindication’ – basically, drugs that do not play well together.

Medical advisor Dr Edwin Reynolds, from the Immunisation Advisory Centre, (an independent organisation run by the University of Auckland), said patients should discuss the spacing of medications and vaccination with their prescriber – but also acknowledged that the mass rollout made it “very, very difficult” for people to get individual advice.

RNZ reported that the chronically ill people they spoke to had contacted their GPs and specialists, but none had received sufficient information. Including me.

Dr Reynolds told RNZ; “It’s such a new vaccine that we have to upskill a whole workforce as well.”

The… workforce we were told to ask about it??

He also said – and this is the part that’s bothering me the most right now:

‘ “…in the vast, vast majority of cases” there was no contraindication for having the vaccine just because someone was on immunosuppressants.

“…you can still have the vaccine quite safely. It’s just how effective it will be.” ‘

Ok so wait. The vaccine is so new that doctors don’t have enough information to advise their patients – but we’re told it won’t interact badly with our illnesses or our existing medications? And we don’t know if it’ll even be fully effective?

It’s very hard to write this. I’m scared of being vilified for not being fully vaccinated. I’m scared of being accused of being a conspiracy theorist or anti-government or, the worst of all, encouraging people not to get vaccinated.

As with many people, I have anti-vaxxers in my family. Because of that, I missed out on having some immunisations when I was younger and healthy, like those for meningitis. With my compromised system, I can now only have vaccinations that aren’t ‘live.’ I think that gives me solid cause to be even more for vaccines – because everyone should have the opportunities I don’t.

I’m glad that the debate around the COVID-19 vaccinations is robust, because it’s our right to ask questions about what we put into our bodies, and it’s also our duty, I believe, to do what we can to keep ourselves and others safe.

Unfortunately, so many of my questions don’t yet have answers. It’s been four weeks since my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. I have spent that time sifting through idiocy on the internet, looking for more than anecdotal evidence of anything, for peer-reviewed research, for something that would reassure me enough to book the second shot.

I couldn’t even find agreement on the percentage efficacy a single dose has. Some sources said you’re 50% protected. Others said up to 90%.

One of the people RNZ spoke to said he was worried about the [social] stigma of being unvaccinated. That’s not even taking into account what might happen if your job or movements are affected by it, or if something like vaccine passports were rolled out here.

I worry about this too. There are thousands of us who might not be able to be safely vaccinated. Does the benefit outweigh the risk? How do we fill in the blanks? Should we just do it for the good of the country regardless of personal consequences? Should I stop asking questions?

That’s not really in my nature. (Just ask my dad, the long-suffering receiver of my many childhood ‘Why?’s).

Like the situation, I don’t have a lot of answers. I’m really looking forward to when we all have more.

Until then, stay safe, well, and kind.

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