I was one of the lucky ones in the 60 to 64 age group invited to get my first shot of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine at the pharmacy down the street from my house. I had mixed feelings about jumping the queue ahead of older people, but followed the advice of health experts to take the first vaccine offered to me. I had the jab at 1:15 in the afternoon. By that evening, I was in an agitated stew of flu-like aches, chills and heat.
I did not take to my bed the next day, but for two days felt groggy, head-achy and brain fogged. On the third day, I went back to bed to sleep in the afternoon; a siesta is very uncommon for me. The next morning I felt so sick and shaky that I had to cancel a week of Pilates classes and an appointment for dental surgery; and I put a call in to my family doctor. Yet at no time did I feel any regret whatsoever about taking the vaccine—only gratitude. I would take the shot again in a flash.
What might it mean that I am in my mid-sixties and had such a strong reaction? Of course, I’m hoping it’s a sign that I have a robust immune system. But when I asked my doctor about this, she seemed uncertain. I now realize I should not have expected a conclusive opinion from her, when even the top scientific bodies are still unsure of so much – including why two people of the same age and fitness markers can react so differently to the same type of vaccine.
Still, what was going on in my body? For over a year I had been in sparkling good health. I am not alone here. Many people who have not been physically touched by devastating effects of COVID-19 have reported that for over a year, since the pandemic was first declared and social distancing became mandatory, they have had no trace of flu, not even the smallest cold, cough or sniffle. Extra handwashing, isolation and mask wearing must account for this – one of the positive side benefits of a very bad year. Being so well for so many months is also why I felt every little thing after the vaccine. At the same time, I was puzzled that some female friends of my age reported to me no side effects whatsoever.
From my sick bed I read two articles emailed to me by a friend about vaccine side effects. One article in the New York Times was aptly titled Women Report Worse Side Effects After a Covid Vaccine (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/08/health/vaccine-side-effects-women-men.html). Published on March 8, 2021, it reported that men and women respond differently to vaccines in general because of ‘hormones, genes and the dosing of the shots.’ Compared to men, ‘women and girls produce more – sometimes twice as many – infection-fighting antibodies in response to the vaccines for influenza, M.M.R., yellow fever, rabies and hepatitis A and B.’
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysed data from the first 13.7 million Moderna vaccines given to Americans. Among the side effects disclosed, ‘79.1 percent came from women, even though only 61.2 percent of vaccines had been administered to women’ during the trials. I took comfort from the words of Dr. Sabra Klein, a microbiologist and immunologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and one of the doctors quoted in the NYT article: ‘I think that there is value to preparing women that they may experience more adverse reactions. That is normal, and likely reflective of their immune system working.’
The second article I read was by James Gallagher, a presenter of Inside Health on BBC Radio 4. (https://www.bbc.com/news/health-56375307) Gallagher described his reaction to the AstraZeneca vaccine: aches, chills and exhaustion identical to mine. Professor Andrew Pollard, who led trials of this vaccine, told Gallagher (who is in his mid-30s) that the older you are, the fewer side effects you tend to experience, adding that the over-70s have almost no side effects. This observation fits with my parents, both in their 90s, who have had their two shots of Pfizer without any side effects.
Eleanor Riley, a professor of immunology and infectious disease at Edinburgh University, explained to Gallagher that his temporary symptoms were caused by the ‘inflammatory response’. ‘[The shot] mobilizes the immune responds and sends immune cells into the tissue around your arm to figure out what’s going on.’ In other words, the vaccine is ‘tricking’ the body into thinking it is fighting the coronavirus.
By day five my headaches were gone, and I was shuffling around my home with faint semi-pleasurable aches. I felt more gratitude each day, as does anyone coming out of a period of sickness. I began to tally up all that I had to be grateful for, including my restored health. Gallagher asked Professor Pollard, who ran the AstraZeneca trials, how bad his second dose will be. ‘Your second dose will be innocuous,’ said Pollard. ‘The second dose is mild in comparison to the first.’ More reason for me to be grateful.