Animal health matters: Vaccination hesitancy allows pandemic to continue

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum
Columnist

In a previous column, I wrote about the necessity for rabies vaccinations for our pets.

The development and widespread use of rabies vaccine has been an enormous boon to animal and public health.  Rabies no longer kills hundreds of people in the U.S., and virus sources are now limited to certain pockets of wildlife.

It’s hard to imagine controlling rabies without vaccines.  They’re extremely effective and time-tested over millions of doses in animals.  Even people who aren’t on board with other vaccines or health management tools recognize the need for rabies vaccine in their pets in this part of the country. 

Let’s shift the subject to another disease for which vaccines exist, albeit a human one – COVID-19.  Like rabies vaccine in animals, the COVID-19 vaccine for people is an essential, effective and safe tool for disease prevention. 

Regardless of whether it’s rabies or COVID-19, there are two ways to look at the usefulness of vaccines.  The first has to do with what vaccination means to the individual.  If you are vaccinated, you are much less likely to get sick from that disease.  Your personal set of immune cells is now ready to tackle that infection.  Should exposure occur, your body deals with it in the background; you likely won’t even know you were infected. 

The second way to look at a vaccine’s usefulness is on the population level.  The virus causing COVID-19 is still running rampant around the world; thankfully, to a lesser extent in the U.S. now.  The virus can run rampant because it’s finding homes: hospitable environments in which to live and reproduce.

For the COVID-19 virus, these homes are people with no immunity against the COVID-19 virus.  The virus needs to establish itself in a person in order to sustain its numbers. 

What happens when the COVID-19 virus, looking for a home, knocks on the door of an immune person?  Not much.  If it can get in at all, it doesn’t stay long and it doesn’t reproduce much.  The immune, or vaccinated, person is not a hospitable environment.  When the virus keeps getting locked out of potential homes, it dies out – and the COVID-19 pandemic fizzles. 

So, the COVID-19 pandemic could end when our population is fully immune.  The choice to become immune (vaccinated), however, is left up to each individual.  That’s a good thing: people should be able to make the decision that suits them best.  Essentially, you decide to take the vaccine, or you decide to risk illness.

If your bet is wrong and you become sick, it really doesn’t affect me. 

But on the population level, your vaccine decision does affect me and other community members.  If you’re not immune, you’re offering the virus a home, whether you get sick or not.  The more viral homes there are out there, the more likely the virus can gather numbers sufficient to potentially blow past my vaccine’s effectiveness. It also allows the pandemic to keep limping along. 

I understand not everyone’s on board with COVID-19 vaccinations, for many different reasons.  Those who have already contracted the disease may feel they’re naturally resistant. Maybe.  But we know immunity from vaccination is very robust; less is known about immunity in recovered people, especially those affected early in the pandemic.  Others consider vaccine unnecessary because they’re young and healthy.  Sure, but as mentioned, just because one avoids illness doesn’t mean they can’t be a host for the virus. 

Many other reasons exist.  Much has been made about how quickly the vaccine effort has been deployed – and that we’re all just part of a big experiment.  Not really.  Sure, there’s never been a COVID-19 vaccine before, but the technology is well-established, and this is the most-scrutinized vaccine ever.  When 200 million people have already been vaccinated, with good effectiveness and miniscule short- and long-term adverse effects, it’s no longer an experiment. 

It’s fundamental to our country that we have the freedom to decide what is done to our bodies.  But, it’s also fundamental that we look out for our fellow citizens.

I hope you get vaccinated against COVID-19.  But, it’s your decision in the end.  Do your research and get vaccinated – or don’t – for the right reasons. 

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University.  He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.eduor at 605-688-5171.