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Debunking myths: Ontario doctors explain why most people should get COVID-19 vaccines

Here’s what an Ontario Medical Association panel had to say about some of the most common myths out there about COVID-19 vaccines.

Ontario Medical Association says people should get advice from their doctor, not social media

Ontario Premier Doug Ford watches a health-care worker prepare a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a University Health Network vaccine clinic in Toronto on Jan. 7. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

With anti-vax sentiment bubbling online, a group of Ontario doctors is attempting to assuage people's fears and counter misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.

The Ontario Medical Association (OMA) held a virtual news conference Wednesday, hoping to debunk some of the most prevalent myths about vaccinations floating around online.

"It's normal that people are going to have legitimate questions and concerns about the COVID vaccines," said OMA president Dr. Samantha Hill. "It's normal to have questions about all of your healthcare."

But, the group of doctors noted, anyone with questions should seek out a trusted source like a family doctor and not rely on social media for information.

Here's what the OMA's panel had to say about three of the most common myths out there about COVID-19 vaccines.

Myth 1: I don't need to get the vaccine as I'm not at risk

One misconception discussed Wednesday was the idea that people don't need to get vaccinated because they aren't personally at risk.

Family physician Dr. Sarita Verma, the dean, president and CEO of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, said that line of thinking just doesn't add up. 

For one, people infected with COVID-19 could end up with long-term health effects that don't appear right away — to say nothing of young people who contract COVID-19 and end up in hospital.

"Even if you do not get the worst case of COVID-19, you can still pass on the virus to someone who might get sick and die," Verma said.

"As a family doctor, I would say I'm going to get the vaccine. There's no reason why you shouldn't, and there are no major, terrible ill effects that will cause bad outcomes worse than getting COVID-19."

According to the latest figures from the federal government, there have been 24 reports of adverse medical reactions following novel coronavirus vaccinations in Canada, which represents 0.007 per cent of all doses administered. Ten of those were considered serious — and that's out of 338,423 doses administered as of Jan. 9.

The most frequently reported side effects were vaccination site reactions, pins and needles, nausea, itching, chest discomfort and anaphylaxis.

"The benefits of vaccines authorized in Canada continue to outweigh the risks," the government's website says.

Myth 2: The vaccine was tested too fast and isn't safe

Another myth raised Wednesday is that the vaccine was tested too quickly, and is therefore inherently unsafe. Hill said that simply isn't the case.

"The truth of the matter is that the vaccine was tested extremely rigorously, and the speed with which we were able to develop the vaccine was based on improved collaboration," she said.

Dr. Noah Ivers of Women's College Hospital in Toronto agreed with that assessment, and said though scientists moved fast, no steps were skipped during the creation and testing of the vaccines.

Intense speed was possible thanks to "unprecedented collaboration" between governments and scientists around the world, as well as "unprecedented investment," he said.

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That this is a true global pandemic also meant scientists had a wealth of cases to choose from to complete necessary testing.

Usually, Ivers said, vaccine approval would take a trial involving around 6,000 to 8,000 people, and that would take many years in order to accumulate the number of positive cases needed to say if a vaccine works and is safe.

"Because there were so many cases going on amongst the people who volunteered for the experiments, they were able to accumulate the number of volunteers, the number of cases, very very quickly," he said.

Scientists also know that when it comes to vaccines, if side effects are going to occur, they'll usually happen within six weeks, Ivers said. That's why it's reassuring that in clinical trials, tens of thousands of people were monitored for eight weeks.

"So we actually know quite a lot about the safety of the vaccine, and we know quite a lot about how unsafe it is to get COVID," he said, adding that millions of people around the world have now gotten a COVID vaccine, with routine surveillance being conducted after the fact.

"What we see right now, as we've seen in the experiments, is that the vaccines certainly are safe," he said. "They're safe enough for me and my family."

Myth 3: COVID vaccines are unsafe for certain people

Dr. Upton Allen, chief of infectious diseases at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, also stressed that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe for all racial and ethnic groups. Most people, he said, can get vaccinated without having to talk to their doctors first.

But that's not true for everyone. Some people should talk to their physician, such as people who are taking immunosuppressive medications, he said. Anyone who has a major reaction to the first dose of a vaccine, or who is known to be allergic to any of its components, should also talk to their doctor.

"There's not a lot in the vaccine that is known to be a major cause of allergic-type reactions," Allen said, giving examples like lipids, potassium, sodium, sugar, water, and mRNA (which triggers the immune response) as vaccine ingredients.

Allen did note, however, that doctors don't yet have enough data from clinical studies for people under 16 years old to get these shots.

"It is important to remember though that until vaccines are approved for children, we can indeed help to protect children by vaccinating those who care for them."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Carter

Reporter

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

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