The most desired Christmas present

This Christmas, the whole of humanity is waiting for a very special present, a present that will bring a new hope for human life on Planet Earth.

We are all, everywhere in the world, waiting … for a vaccine!

Who would ever think a vaccine could be, this year, the most wanted present in the whole wide world?

At this moment, when a pandemic has destroyed countries and people’s way of life, it is easy to understand the desire to be “offered” a vaccine, as a vaccine will help to fight the nasty virus and let us breathe again without fear.

Vaccines simulate natural immunity, the body’s natural resistance to disease.

The long-term goal of an immunisation programme is the complete eradication of a disease.

Why immunise?
The immune system is a complex network of cells and proteins that defends the body against infection, keeping a record of every virus and bacteria it has ever defeated, so it can recognise and destroy it quickly if it enters the body again.

The immune system wards off infection by producing complex molecules called antibodies that fight the invading germs. These antibodies remember a particular strain of a bacteria or virus and will recognise another attack by the same germs and move quickly to destroy them. Unfortunately, it takes surviving that first round to gain this immunity.

Without antibody protection, some infections can be fatal or leave nasty after-effects as a result.

Immunisation is one of the best ways to protect adults and children against infectious diseases. Were it not for the widespread use of vaccines, a far greater number of deaths during childhood would occur and many more people would be living with chronic and often crippling after-effects of disease.

What is a vaccine for?
A vaccine triggers the infection-fighting memory in the body before the individual is exposed to the actual disease. A vaccine contains a killed or weakened form of the germ. When administered in healthy people, it triggers an immune response without causing the disease.

If disease germs invade, they are met by antibodies prepared to destroy them. The protective antibodies stay on guard in your system, even when there are no disease germs to fight.

Widespread and persistent immunisation efforts have lowered the incidence rates of many serious illnesses by more than 94%.

Yet many people are under-immunised. This means they lack one or more of the recommended immunisations or do not have a full series of doses required for a vaccine and are, therefore, not fully protected.

Natural immunity/vaccine immunity
Immunity from a vaccine offers protection equal to the immunity acquired by natural infection.

If you have had a disease, your body generally provides “acquired immunity”, meaning long-term protection from ever having the disease again. However, gaining immunity this way involves considerable risk as diseases that otherwise are vaccine-preventable can kill or cause permanent disability, such as paralysis from polio, deafness from meningitis, liver damage from hepatitis B, or brain damage from measles. At the same time, vaccines rarely kill or put individuals at risk of the serious complications of infection.

Still, some people believe that many of those affected during a disease outbreak are in fact the ones who were previously vaccinated. They also argue that immunity from vaccines is not effective. Even if it is true that vaccines do not completely protect 100% of the people who receive them, the small amount of people that will not be protected will have the benefit of the general protection of all the others around them. This is called “herd immunity”.

Even if it is a reality that during a disease outbreak a number of vaccinated people will catch the disease, those who were immunised usually have a less serious illness. Those not vaccinated are in the greatest danger.

Vaccine safety
Public concern about vaccine safety still continues despite the successes of vaccination campaigns on public health. Unfortunately, many people still fear that a vaccine may trigger serious side effects or even cause the disease.

As a matter of fact, vaccines are very safe. Before they can be used, they must meet strict safety standards requiring a lengthy development process.
Nevertheless, vaccines, like prescription drugs, are not completely free of side effects. Most effects are minor and temporary, and serious side effects are extremely rare.

This year, Christmas will certainly be very different from the usual traditional way but, so that there is hope for Christmas in 2021, we need to keep going with the individual efforts for preventing the spread of Covid-19.

Despite knowing that a vaccine is coming soon, even if we are all tired of isolation and physical distancing, good hygiene measures and masks, we all must do it until the level of immunisation is enough to protect each and everyone of us.

This year we will reinvent Christmas. In 2021, we will reinvent life

Maria Alice
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Dr Maria Alice is a consultant in General and Family Medicine. General Manager/Medical Director – Luzdoc International Medical Service. Medical Director – Grupo Hospital Particular do Algarve/ Hospital S. Gonçalo de Lagos