Overall, the fact that these few cases are getting so much attention from regulators should be reassuring. No other new vaccine has been rolled out under such scrutiny, and scrutiny is the best safeguard. But the attention can also be a problem. Part of the reason these adverse reactions feel especially scary is the amount of press coverage that they get. When health officials in the U.K. reported that two people had anaphylactic reactions after getting vaccinated, it turned into a global news story. Then last week, The New York Times sent a push alert for a front-page story about a health-care worker in Alaska who had a serious allergic reaction and was under observation in a hospital. Stories like this, over time, make rare events seem more common than they are. They can stick in our head and skew our perception of risk, since we do not receive push alerts for each of the other 300,000 Americans who have been vaccinated uneventfully.
A sad fact about this pandemic is that most Americans have become numb to hearing that thousands of people die every day of COVID-19. Hundreds of thousands more are sickened, many of them seriously. Many have long-lasting symptoms. Now reports of negative reactions to vaccines are what’s new. But we can’t let novelty distract us from a sober risk assessment. Even if, in some hypothetical world, dozens of people had fatal reactions every day—again, this is not happening—that would pale in comparison with the damage the virus is doing.
A common fallacy when we are weighing options is thinking that high-risk inaction is better than low-risk action. Once vaccines are widely available, people will be asked to go out and do something that carries an apparently infinitesimal risk so that we can end a disease whose risk is far greater and is laid bare all around us daily. The pandemic does not end with the development of a vaccine. It ends only with herd immunity—when so many people are vaccinated that outbreaks, if they happen at all, are small and easily contained. The alternative to getting vaccinated isn’t “playing it safe.” The alternative to getting vaccinated is widespread death, endless masking, and distancing, and an indefinite pandemic.
In your specific case, with an illness such as tetanus, going without future doses of that vaccine might be a reasonable decision. The infection is very rare in most of the world. As long as you don’t work mending rusty fences or walk barefoot in scrap yards, you should be at low risk. That’s clearly not the case with the coronavirus. But with any vaccine-preventable disease, remember that the only reason a few people can pretty safely go without a shot is that so many other people didn’t.
“Ask Dr. Hamblin” is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.