Medicine and Health Sciences
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General vaccination questions and concerns

COVID-19 is a contagious disease with serious and potentially life-threatening implications. Even in cases where individuals don’t experience intense symptoms themselves, they can still transmit COVID-19 to others. While behavioural measures, such as wearing masks and limiting social contact, all help to contain the spread of the virus, getting vaccinated is the best way to safeguard yourself and those around you.

No, you cannot get COVID-19 from a vaccine. None of the COVID-19 vaccines in use are using live viruses. The symptoms that may be experienced after vaccination are part of your body’s normal immune response. The vaccine you get will naturally disintegrate a few days after it has triggered this response.

The death rate from COVID-19 is far higher than what we see in the case of seasonal flu. Because of the danger this disease poses, getting vaccinated helps you safeguard yourself and those you love.

“Herd immunity” occurs when a large enough portion of the population has received vaccination against a disease to limit the further spread of that disease. By getting vaccinated, each person contributes to herd immunity and helps to protect more vulnerable members of the population who cannot get vaccinated themselves.

As with any vaccine, to be made available to the general public, COVID-19 vaccines must first pass through a set of rigorous tests. These include measures designed to test the effectiveness, safety, and quality of the vaccines.

As a result, all COVID-19 vaccines currently approved for use have been deemed both safe and effective by health experts and organisations such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

There are rare, serious side effects associated with these vaccines, but the risk of getting these are similar to or even less common than with most other treatments and medications. What is agreed is that the benefits of these vaccines far outweigh the risks.

No. mRNA does not modify DNA. The term “mRNA” means “messenger ribonucleic acid” and, as part of vaccines, mRNA provides your body’s cells with instructions on how to make specific proteins which are part of the virus that causes COVID-19.

These “spike proteins” are recognised by your immune system as being “out of place”, and your body then develops an immune response in the same way as it would if you’re exposed to the COVID-19 virus. This means your body already knows how to deal with the virus if you later get infected. It will be able to respond quickly and fight the virus much more effectively as a result. As mentioned before, these spike proteins by themselves cannot cause COVID-19 disease.

The standard process for developing vaccines typically involves three phases of clinical trials in humans before they’re made widely available. Under normal circumstances, these sets of trials may be delayed by obstacles such as insufficient funding, delayed approval from health and safety organisations, insufficient participants signing up for trials, or other factors.

Because of the devastating impact of COVID-19 as well as its status as a global pandemic, many of these obstacles could be bypassed. The virus’s genetic material was made available to scientists across the globe early in 2020 so that they could start developing vaccines. With funding readily available and many volunteers for the initial trials, companies could develop the vaccines faster than normal while still following all necessary safety protocols and stages of testing.

Some previous epidemics were also caused by coronaviruses (e.g. SARS and MERS). Vaccines were developed against these diseases at the time and scientists could build on these previous efforts. Because COVID-19 disease developed rapidly and occurred in large numbers, it was possible to see quite quickly whether the vaccines worked or not.

Some people experience no side effects whatsoever from the vaccines. In most cases, where side effects are experienced, they are mild.

Some common side effects include:

  • Pain, redness and/or swelling at the site of vaccination
  • Muscle pain
  • Chills and fever
  • Nausea
  • Headaches
  • Tiredness

These side effects typically start about six hours after receiving the vaccine and disappear within two to three days. To relieve side effects, you can use paracetamol or anti-inflammatory medication.

Note that, if you develop a cough, sore throat, a change in your sense of smell/taste, or you have a fever of 38 degrees Celsius or more that lasts a few days, you could have COVID-19 (unrelated to the vaccine). You should get tested and self-isolate for 10 days if you’re diagnosed with COVID-19.

In very rare cases, individuals may experience more serious effects such as anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction) or TTS – thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (blood clot with low platelets). Cases of TTS have occurred in only seven out of every million people vaccinated. Severe allergic reactions have occurred between two and 11 per million people vaccinated.

While these side effects may seem alarming, it’s important to remember that, in the majority of cases, vaccination isn’t only safe but demonstrably effective. Vaccination reduces infection rates and protects individuals and populations from the dangerous and potentially long-term effects of the COVID-19 virus. The likelihood of blood clots occurring from exposure to the COVID-19 virus itself are still 30-100 times higher than the rate of TTS.

The benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks of contracting COVID-19.

In the case of an anaphylactic reaction (a severe allergic reaction), symptoms will usually occur within 15 minutes of receiving the vaccine and can be treated by medical staff at the vaccination facility. In the rarer case of TTS, symptoms occur within three weeks of vaccination, and can include abdominal pain, blood spots at the injection site, swelling in the legs, and a severe, persistent headache.

If you experience any of these symptoms, please contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible and inform them that you’ve recently been vaccinated. Your healthcare provider will be able to contact specialists to provide support if necessary.

You can still get your vaccine. None of the COVID-19 vaccines contain eggs or any other animal products.

In South Africa, it’s still mandatory to wear a mask while the vaccine rollout is underway. Adhering to other measures, such as avoiding crowds, maintaining social distancing and sanitising your hands, are also still important, even if you’ve been vaccinated.

You should still get vaccinated even if you’ve already recovered from COVID-19.

At present, it’s unclear how long natural immunity (the immunity acquired from your body fighting off the disease) lasts after recovery. In rare cases, individuals who have previously had COVID-19 can contract the disease again. Getting vaccinated will boost your body’s immune response to the virus and make reinfection less likely.

Currently, you will need to wait for three months from the start of your COVID-19 symptoms before you can get vaccinated. But please check with your vaccination site about this requirement as it may change from time to time.

Yes, they are. None of the available COVID-19 vaccines contain animal products.

If you currently have COVID-19, you should wait until three months have passed since the start of your symptoms before you can get vaccinated. Similarly, if you’re currently in quarantine/self-isolation due to being a close contact, but you haven’t been diagnosed with COVID-19, you should wait until your quarantine/self-isolation period has ended before getting vaccinated.

Because wide-scale vaccination has only recently been implemented, data on the long-term protection of COVID-19 vaccines is still being collected. Despite this, vaccination still presents a safer choice than the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19.

Discuss this with your doctor but note that authorities advise COVID-19 vaccination for all adults, even those with underlying medical conditions. COVID-19 disease usually poses a much greater risk than the vaccine for persons with underlying medical conditions.

Vaccination for pregnant women

Initial data on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines during pregnancy are reassuring, and no special safety concerns for pregnant women have been highlighted so far. The South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) currently recommends that pregnant women who are at high risk of contracting COVID-19 be vaccinated in consultation with their healthcare provider.

The risk of developing more severe COVID-19 symptoms is higher for pregnant women. There’s also a risk of preterm birth associated with contracting COVID-19. It’s recommended that pregnant women at high risk of contracting COVID-19 consult with their healthcare provider with regards to vaccination.

South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination response

South Africa’s vaccination strategy includes three phases, each targeting subgroups of the population in order of priority:

Phase 1: Healthcare workers, including health science students, care workers, and traditional healers.

Phase 2: Essential workers and individuals older than 60.

Phase 3: Individuals older than 18.

Over the course of the next year, the goal is to vaccinate over 40 million South Africans as the country moves through the three-phase process of vaccine roll-out.

South Africa used 500,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson’s (J&J) Janssens vaccine as part of an initial trial (Sisonke) targeting healthcare workers. Pfizer vaccines have also been received as of May 2021, and more vaccines are on their way.

The J&J vaccine has shown 64% efficacy in South Africa so far, and 82% efficacy in preventing severe disease. Early trials of the Pfizer vaccine have shown 95% efficacy. Both vaccines have shown efficacy against the 501Y.V2 variant of COVID-19, which is currently the dominant variant in South Africa.

In the case of the J&J vaccine, only a single dose is required. Those receiving the Pfizer vaccine will need to get two doses – an initial dose and a further dose six weeks later.

The AstraZeneca vaccine has proved safe and effective in other countries. In South Africa’s case, the AstraZeneca vaccine was shown to be less effective against our predominant COVID-19 variant –501Y.V2. This is now called the Variant of Concern [VOC] beta strain.

For this reason, the decision was made to proceed with the rollout of the other two vaccines. The scientists developing the AstraZeneca vaccine have indicated that they’re researching a modified version of their vaccine with the aim of making it more effective against 501Y.V2.

​​​​​​​​​​​IMPORTANT NOTE:

Faculty of Medicine and Health students and staff members, you can now register for your vaccine by visiting

For more information about getting your vaccine, contact (staff and postgraduate students) or (undergraduate students).