THE OTHER PANDEMIC
BY Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha
Some months ago, the American state of Texas reported that out of almost 9,000 people who had died due to COVID-19 this year, at least 43 were fully vaccinated. At first glance, this statistic looks bad. How could people who have had both doses of the vaccine contract COVID-19 and die?
But if one looks carefully at these statistics, it becomes clear that over 8,900 (99.5%) of the people who died of COVID-19 were unvaccinated while only 0.5 percent of the deaths were the result of ‘breakthrough infections’ – i.e. people who contracted the infection over two weeks after taking their second dose.
Moreover, of the 43 vaccinated people who died, over three-quarters had a serious underlying health condition such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer or chronic lung disease, and 95 percent of them were over 60.
We understand that wearing a seatbelt doesn’t necessarily provide us with total protection against a fatality in a motoring accident. Similarly, we have to accept that being vaccinated doesn’t provide us with full protection against death from COVID-19.
However, we do know that being fully vaccinated greatly reduces the risk of becoming seriously ill in case we contract the virus – i.e. in the same way that seatbelts greatly reduce fatalities in the case of a car crash.
So individuals who opt not to avail themselves of an effective vaccine remain at very great risk of contracting COVID-19 and dying of it.
Despite a poor roll out till around the middle of this year, Sri Lanka is doing well with its vaccination programme. The efficacy of the vaccines rolled out in addition to the efficiency of our military have combined to put us on an effective trajectory to contain this pandemic.
The advantage of being double dosed with a COVID-19 vaccine is that it offers up to 80-90 percent protection against having to suffer a severe outcome from the disease as well as an estimated 60-80 percent protection from contracting a symptomatic infection of this particular coronavirus.
Moreover, if you are vaccinated, you’re about 50 percent less likely to pass on the virus to others – even if you do contract a mild subclinical infection.
As more and more people are vaccinated, fewer citizens will come into contact with the virus.
Whether we will need booster vaccinations is still not known with certainty. As in the case of other diseases for which we’re vaccinated (such as tetanus and typhoid), the antibodies induced by vaccination decline over time; but at the moment, studies show that the protection (i.e. vaccine effectiveness) that immunisation provides seems to last.
Only time will tell whether we will need booster shots; and if so, how often we’ll need to take them. We will also learn whether only certain groups such as healthcare workers, the immunocompromised and the elderly will need boosters.
I am old enough to remember when cholera was a real threat and one needed to get a booster dose of the relevant vaccination every six months to remain protected. A disease such as tetanus on the other hand, only requires a booster once every 10 years.
Getting vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus is something we will have to accept and live with; because for the foreseeable future, we’ll have to contend with this disease and avoid having to struggle through a ‘pandemic of the unvaccinated.’