You can cure a hangover with “hair of the dog that bit you.” Or can you?
Advice to drink more alcohol to reduce the effects of already having had too much alcohol seems contrary (and unwise). I thought of this ironic phrase when Donald Trump was soundly booed at a rally where he took credit for the Covid-19 vaccines and encouraged his supporters to get vaccinated. As president, Trump fueled a narrative downplaying the pandemic and the need for a collective response. Now, the followers of the movement he spearheaded will not accept his suggestion that vaccination is necessary or protective.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation advocates for vaccination. To control the virus and end the pandemic, people must get vaccinated. Unfortunately, the novelty of the vaccines has been used by some to support ill-informed opinions. These have easily proliferated via the internet, capitalizing on the fear of anything new and saturating the news and social media with disinformation to advance an anti-vaccine movement.
“Hair of the dog that bit you” actually originates from medieval times and was an early attempt at vaccination. When someone was bitten by a rabid dog, putting the same dog’s hair in the wound was hoped to convey some protection from the fatal viral disease. Fortunately, we have developed more effective vaccines for rabies. If faced with a potential rabies exposure, I wonder, would anti-vaxxers prefer the medieval version? Perhaps new and improved is better.
Smallpox is the first disease for which a true scientific method was applied to produce a vaccine. Recognizing that milkmaids seemed to be protected from smallpox, Edward Jenner theorized in 1796 that exposure to cowpox might be the reason. He injected material from cowpox lesions into a boy and then exposed him to smallpox — a disease with a 30 percent mortality rate. Fortunately, the theory was correct and vaccines were born. Vaccinia is the Latin word for cowpox. Through the years, this first vaccine was modified and distributed. In 1980 — after the completion of a successful global campaign — the world was finally pronounced free of smallpox.
Vaccines for viral diseases have historically utilized actual viruses. Typically, vaccines contain killed viruses or modified live (attenuated) viruses. Modified live vaccines are typically more protective and the effects last longer, but there is more concern for causing disease. (On a personal note, modified live vaccines are more concerning for veterinarians who accidentally inject themselves in attempts to administer vaccines to unwilling and mobile critters.)
Continued efforts to improve vaccine efficacy and safety led to the development of mRNA vaccines. With this technology, a small amount of mRNA is injected, which is used as a blueprint by cells to create a protein. The immune system then mounts a response to the foreign protein. This response creates a memory so that when the immune system encounters the protein again — within a virus — it is primed for attack. The Covid-19 vaccines are the first successful mRNA vaccines, the culmination of research efforts of many scientists from multiple countries over almost five decades. They do not contain a virus and so cannot cause disease. By using the blueprint, cells are able to produce large amounts of the spike protein, which results in a stronger immune response. New and improved is stronger and safer.
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Unfortunately, there is no shortage of opinions regarding Covid-19 vaccines. In the 1980s, a popular television commercial hawked cough syrup by using a soap opera actor who played a doctor. The phrase “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” was born. The ad was tongue-in-cheek humor poking fun at the idea of obtaining medical advice from someone who was not a real doctor. Now, anyone with Google and an opinion pushes bad information on social media to followers who are drawn more to sensational stories than to facts. Be critical and understand the limitations of where and from whom you seek advice. The internet cannot make you a medical expert. Because the abundance of information can be confusing, stick to advice from sources who have actually attended medical school.
Social media has also memorialized the tragic irony of the anti-vaxxer movement. The social news website Reddit has a channel devoted to stories of vocal anti-vaxxers who have died from Covid-19. It is hard to resist the urge for “I told you so,” but mocking and lack of empathy is unlikely to aid our efforts to contain this pandemic.
We’ve come a long way from the hair of the dog. Vaccines can eradicate diseases. Scientists have continued to improve safety and efficacy and produced vaccines in response to the Covid-19 pandemic in record time. Despite our history of success with vaccines and the results of the Covid-19 vaccine trials, our political climate has fostered an anti-vaccine movement that continues to thwart our response to this pandemic.
Viruses are not motivated by politics, so don’t get medical advice from a politician. If you have concerns about your health and the Covid-19 vaccines, speak to your doctor instead.