NZ’s COVID free status relies on trust in vaccine

Dr Bryan Betty, College Medical Director

21 June 2021

General practitioners up and down the country are fielding dozens of questions every day on the COVID-19 vaccine. We hear everything from, “Does it cause disease?” (No). “Does it alter my DNA?” (No) and “Does it interact with medication I’m already taking?” (No).

The vaccine is well tested, and it is safe and effective. 

As health professionals we are confident answering questions such as these. The Pfizer vaccine, which is being used in New Zealand, has already been administered to millions around the world with no more serious side-effects than the flu vaccine. It has been tracked and monitored in more detail than any other vaccine in history. And, we have seen successful vaccine campaigns, in the UK for example, where daily death tolls have come down at a rapid rate following the rollout of their vaccine programme.

As a profession, general practitioners are becoming frustrated by the amount of misinformation being spread about the safety of the COVID vaccine by individuals and groups who belittle the science and the data, and in many cases hide behind the Internet.
It is disappointing to hear misinformation about the vaccine being passed onto patients by some medical professionals too. We have a clear duty to provide evidence-based advice and this is particularly crucial now as we navigate through the COVID pandemic when people are bombarded with health messages, in an unpredictable situation, and need certainty from those they trust; their doctors.

This misinformation spread is leading to an increase of vaccine hesitancy within our communities, and it needs to stop. Being vaccinated protects not only you, but those you are in contact with every day – your family, children, colleagues, and the people you sit next to on the bus on the way into work.

COVID is not going away. There has only ever been one disease eradicated from the world, and that is smallpox.

Turning on the news each night tells us that COVID is still rampaging around the world. Resurgences in India, Singapore, and Europe dominate the headlines. Taiwan, which had been a poster child of the worldwide COVID response has suffered from a resurgence following a decision to allow pilots into the country who had not been vaccinated. And as we’ve seen in Melbourne, it only takes one person to trigger an outbreak.

With COVID’s reach extending to every corner of the world, and new mutations occurring as the virus evolves, New Zealand’s focus is rightly on keeping ahead of the surges and keeping it out of our communities. But this strategy is dependent on us as individuals and our uptake of the vaccine. 

Looking ahead, the time will come when our borders will need to open further. When that time comes, we will need to, as much as possible, be fully vaccinated as a country.

The last scenario we want to see is a swift and widespread resurgence of the virus in our currently COVID-free communities. No one, especially those of us in the health sector, wants to go back to the situation of dealing with a huge caseload of COVID-19 testing and patient uncertainty when we are also trying to deliver great healthcare to our communities.

We know the tensions between the need to vaccinate, supply of the vaccine (which is facing unprecedented global demand) and the hesitancy of some people within New Zealand will continue.

Presently New Zealand is one of the few countries with the luxury of time with no COVID-19 present in the community. So, if the vaccine rollout programme does spill over into 2022, then we need to be pragmatic.  

GP’s have been at the frontline of the COVID response since it was first recorded in New Zealand, continuing to provide medical care to their communities. We will continue to field your questions on the vaccine and I for one, will continue to strongly advocate for the safety of the vaccine. 

We have a duty of care to our community and our patients - and we take this responsibility seriously.