Why My Teens Got Vaxed
It’s been a long year, y’all, and now that my lovely spouse and I are fully vaccinated, it feels awesome to be able to get out in the world sans mask. I didn’t mind doing what I had to do to protect other folks during Ye Olde Coronatimes™, but it certainly wasn’t awesome, especially when it was 96° in the shade last summer.
But for me, the best part of getting vaccinated is spending the whole day doing whatever the heck we want without having to worry that we’re going to end up in the hospital or infect someone else who will. For our family, resuming “life as normal” doesn’t just mean being able to go where we want to go or buy whatever we want to. It also means being able to do so without constantly waking up to find out yet another friend’s loved one has passed on.
That’s why when the vaccine was made available to teenagers a couple of weeks ago, we wasted no time taking our two 13-year-olds to get theirs.
The World Before and After Vaccines Were Invented
I love time travel stories, but if given the opportunity, I would never want to travel backward. It’s not that I wouldn’t love to rub elbows with the Tudors that gives me pause (although they did have a habit of beheading their friends). It’s the fact that all kinds of normal everyday illnesses by today’s standards could lay you out dead back in the day.
As late as 1900, the average life expectancy in the United States was 47.3 years old (it’s 78.7 today). The leading causes of mortality in young people back then included many diseases we take immunity to for granted today, including:
- Typhoid Fever
In the 20th century alone, smallpox killed 300 million people. Thanks to vaccines, the last person died of smallpox in 1977. On May 8, 1980, the World Health Assembly declared the disease eradicated.
And yet, despite knowing that vaccines have saved countless lives, millions of folks are very skittish about getting the COVID vaccine. And while I don’t fall into that camp, it makes some degree of sense to me that they would be. After all, we live in a country with a for-profit healthcare system where we’re constantly hearing about recalled medications, and we all spent the last year listening to some of our government leaders contradict our scientists about basic COVID facts.
The Tiny Reminder Under My Left Eye
Having an ugly bout with a preventable illness has shaped the way I view vaccines. Anytime I hear someone dismiss chickenpox or measles as a “childhood illness,” everything else they say comes into question.
If you look closely, just beneath my left eye you can see a small pitted mark that looks a bit like an acne scar, except it isn’t from acne at all. It’s noticeable enough that makeup doesn’t hide it, and while it’s not particularly unsightly, I can’t help but see it every time I put on my mascara. Although it’s been 40-some-odd years from the day I first got it, that little mark remains a reminder of my childhood bout with chickenpox.
I only remember a few things from when I was a little kid. I remember loving someone named Miss Josie in my pre-K class, and I remember having the dopest Strawberry Shortcake bedroom. But four decades later, one thing I can still remember in crystal detail is the hot, raised rash, the burning fever, and the pure misery that there was no relief from. That’s why when I learned my own kids could get vaccinated against chickenpox, I was more than happy to sign them up.
Even so, there’s a bigger reason to get that varicella vaccine. It can also help to weaken cases of shingles, the nasty adult version of chickenpox that is by all accounts I’ve heard excruciating.
As with all vaccines, the benefit of the varicella and Covid vaccine is not only in the immediate protection the shot provides the recipient but also on a larger scale, the protection it provides for the recipient’s community.
Were the Covid Vaccines Rushed?
One of the biggest protests against the Covid vaccine is that they were “rushed through.” There are actually several good reasons that they were developed in record time:
This was really the first vaccine produced with modern medicine that affected literally the entire global population at once rather than resolving endemic outbreaks, which meant that no one had to raise money for the development process, and that means it was at the top of most governments’ priority list. No one had to wait for funding to be allocated to move through the different trial phases because it was already there and ready to go.
All Hands on Deck
Ordinarily, you’re going to have dedicated groups working on a vaccine, but most companies are not going to put all of their resources on it because let’s face it, they don’t have to. During the pandemic, the world quite literally came to a halt. Every major pharmaceutical company worldwide had a direct vested interest in putting their top brass on this endeavor, and they did.
It’s kind of like how it can take my kids all day to clean their rooms, but suddenly when we can’t invite their friend over until their rooms are clean, they’re like over-caffeinated little Martha Stewarts with Hogwartsian cleaning abilities.
Most of us know how old-school vaccines work. In a nutshell, a vaccine introduces a little broken piece of a virus into your body. Because it’s just a little part of the virus, it can’t function to attach to your cells on its own. But your body still sees it as a foreign invader and gets to work making special antibodies. Once the invaders are wiped out, your body keeps a copy of the antibody recipe around for months or even years just in case there’s another party.
Even though the bug is no longer a threat, this code stays in your body ready to go just as if you had been truly sick. That way, when you’re exposed to the live virus, you’ve already got the code you need to beat the baddies.
One reason a lot of folks are hesitant about the Covid vaccine is that it uses a relatively new mRNA-based technology. While the concept of an mRNA vaccine may sound very strange, these vaccines are essentially just a better way of doing the same thing vaccines have always done.
I think it scares people because there is a whole lot of scuttlebutt going around about how mRNA can alter our DNA. But these rumors are based on a misguided understanding of mRNA.
Let’s start with what viruses are, which is honestly super weird. Most folks are surprised when they learn that viruses are technically not even considered living things. They’re just strange clusters of the molecules that make up living things that require a living organism to replicate. Think of them as more of organic AI vampires.
When a virus gets into your body, it attaches itself to your cell and then injects its own information into your cell’s DNA (coronaviruses like Covid-19 accomplish this with those little characteristic spikes we’ve all come to recognize).
This turns your cells into little factories for new copies of the virus. Then guess what all those copies go and do? They hijack a bunch more of your cells, which in turn make more copies and hijack more cells. You breathe the nasty little bots out all over the place and then next thing you know there’s a pandemic.
Thanks to leaps and bounds in our understanding of RNA and DNA over the past few decades, medical experts have fairly recently found a better way to keep that from happening. The technology behind mRNA vaccines actually comes from advances in cancer treatment, where doctors have been successfully targeting tumor mRNA using patients’ immune systems. Vaccines using mRNA for zika, flu, rabies, and CMV have also been in the works for some time now.
Rather than introduce our immune “army” to the bad guys, scientists figured out that by using the same mRNA vaccine blueprint we already had, we could show our bodies a dummy version of the bad guys with the same results, cutting out a bunch of nasty side effects and risks you’d get with a traditional vaccine.
Instead of injecting those coronavirus spikes into our bodies like a conventional vaccine would, an mRNA vaccine teaches our bodies to make only that little spike, not the whole virus. That gets us producing the spikes, which are completely inert without the rest of their virus. This, in turn, gets our cells producing antibodies just as if we were making the actual virus since the antibodies deal with the point of attachment.
And because this type of vaccine is so affordable and easy to produce, production can be scaled up in a much shorter time frame than conventional vaccines.
Since the technology already existed for the vaccine platform, the biggest hurdle was sequencing the genome and then plugging it into existing technology. Thankfully, gene sequencing has moved forward by significant leaps over the past decade. And scientists have been studying other types of coronaviruses for about 50 years. From that info, researchers already had tons of data on how viral attachment occurs and what part of the protein needs to be targeted.
It’s kind of like once you’ve learned how to prepare sushi, you can pretty much prepare any roll. The process of making sushi is pretty complicated. You have to be able to prepare the rice correctly, handle the raw fish the right way, roll the sushi tight enough, and handle those scary sushi knives. But once you’ve got the process down and have the right equipment, you can make a crunchy roll or a dragon roll without having to go back through culinary school.
Concerns About the Vaccine
It’s natural to have questions about anything that’s going into your body, especially since most of us don’t have that deeper understanding of molecular genetics. These are some of the more common concerns I’ve encountered on social media and among folks I know:
1. I heard the Covid vaccine can alter my DNA.
This concern probably stems from the understanding that mRNA is a type of genetic material. But mRNA and DNA don’t work in the way they would need to for mRNA to rewrite a person’s genetic code. Kind of like how your car key can’t start your computer.
This is because the genetic information contained in the vaccine is physically incapable of entering or interacting with our DNA, which is safely contained inside the cell nucleus. All mRNA also eventually degrades due to normal intracellular processes.
2. Some experts are claiming the vaccine can harm a person’s fertility.
Unlike most rumors, this one can be traced to one guy, a German doctor named Wolfgang Wodarg who got his medical license in the early 1970s and hasn’t worked as a physician since the early 1980s, when he moved into healthcare administration. Before the Covid pandemic, he was famous for hiring medical imposter Gert Postel, who turned out to be a postman posing as a doctor.
After claiming that Covid-19 was just a minor respiratory infection didn’t work out so great for him, he came up with a convoluted and pseudoscientific hypothesis about how the vaccine might trick a pregnant woman’s body into targeting the placenta. This turned out to not be true in any way whatsoever. And since we know the vaccine is just an inert copy of the virus, there’s no way it could do anything the virus can’t.
3. How do we know there won’t be vaccine-related health problems years down the road?
The mRNA technology used to make the Covid vaccine has been studied and used for about 30 years. We also know that for all vaccines since vaccines first came into development, any side effects will always show up within about two months of injection.
Since vaccines are essentially delivering a version of the infection, they can only do what the virus would do to our body. And this tracks with what we know about vaccine side effects since the process of antibody development can take up to eight weeks and those side effects are typically known side effects of the live virus. While vaccine additives could potentially cause a problem, that would also become apparent in the short term, not years down the road.
4. If I already had Covid, I am as immune as I would be with the vaccine.
You might be. But you can’t know for sure, whereas you definitely can know for sure with the vaccine. While the data is still being collected on the long-term comparison, we know from other types of vaccines like flu and HPV that the immunity conferred by a vaccine is often much greater than is from naturally acquired immunity.
Early reports do indicate that natural exposure to Covid-19 seems to convey lasting immunity. But the degree of exposure and level of immunity can vary, especially in people with immune systems that may be compromised like seniors or individuals with chronic health problems.
When folks get sick naturally, the amount of viral exposure can vary wildly. But with a vaccine, you get safely exposed to an amount of (pretend) virus that we already know is enough to develop immunity at about a 95% rate. The true test comes down to antibody response, and early studies are showing a more robust antibody response from the vaccine.
Getting Your Teen’s Vaccine
The Covid vaccine is currently available for anyone over the age of 13 years old. To get your teen vaccinated, you can take them anywhere you would go to get an adult vaccinated (we got ours at Walgreens).
I was a bit concerned that our boys would have a tough time with the jab, but they were calm and eager to get it over with. But don’t take it from me. Take it from those guys:
“A lot of the things that people are saying about the vaccine are pretty misinformed, so they just went in one ear and out the other. Getting the vaccine protects you and the people around you who don’t or can’t get it. I just really wanted to be safe so I didn’t have to worry as much.
It’s not actually really as bad as it might seem. It’s a little weird when it first goes into your arm, but after that it’s okay. Your arm might feel a little sore for a while, but that’s about it. For me personally, being able to go around without constantly having your mask on is worth getting the shot.”
“Even after I get my vaccine, other people could still be getting sick around me. I didn’t want to get Covid. It was annoying having to wear a mask all the time. Once I get my second shot, I can stop wearing a mask if I want.
I just ignored all of the rumors because maybe people heard it from somewhere and thought it was real, but we use facts and research that stuff in my family.
When I took the shot, I was scared it would hurt a lot, but it only hurts about half as much as when you poke yourself with something sharp and only for about half a second, like as fast as when you snap. Thinking about it probably is going to make it worse when you’re waiting to get the shot, so try to think of something else.
After getting it, my arm hurt a lot, but that was just for like two days. The day after I got it, I got sick for just the morning, but symptoms and whatnot can vary from person to person. I just didn’t want to get out of bed.
Yeah, you might be sick for a couple of days and your arm might hurt, but it’s that or get Covid. There’s also the risk of getting other people sick.”
If you haven’t scheduled your teen’s vaccination yet, we want to encourage you to make time now. You can get the shot at any Walgreens or through the Tulsa Health Department, and it only took us about 20 minutes from start to finish to fill out the paperwork and get the shot.
Did your crew get the jab? Let me know all about it in the comments. Thanks for reading, and please have a safe and healthy week in your nebula!