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Vaccine injury, otherwise known as a vaccine adverse event, is an unintended reaction or injury that is sustained from receiving a vaccination. In most cases, effects will be mild and short-lived, however in some cases, more significant effects can occur and can last a longer period of time.
Vaccines have undoubtedly saved many lives around the world, and whilst serious adverse events are rare compared to the number of doses administered, when they do occur, they can have unexpected and life-changing implications. Vaccine injuries may also give rise to reactivation or exacerbation of pre-existing conditions like autoimmune conditions, resulting in much harm and suffering to a person.
Vaccines use the latest biomedical science to influence the very complex human immune system. In order to understand how vaccines work, having a basic understanding of how the immune system works is helpful.
There are two main parts of the immune system, the innate (nonspecific) and the adaptive (more specific - targeted). The innate immune system is like the (blind) security guards of your immune system. If a pathogen gets past the barriers (e.g. mucosal linings, saliva, gastric acid), the security guards will kill the pathogen (e.g. virus, bacteria, fungus, protozoa), indiscriminately.
Parts of the innate system present pieces of the pathogen to the adaptive part of the immune system for it to copy for future reference. The adaptive immune system has a more accurate and targeted response than the innate system. Specific antibodies are manufactured in a process of trial and error, and are retained in case of future infections of that specific pathogen.
Vaccines are described by the US CDC as “A product that stimulates a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease, protecting the person from that disease”.
Types of vaccines
There are several different types of vaccines, each working differently in the body, depending on:
Traditional vaccine technologies, generally termed ‘purified protein vaccines’, deliver a variant of the virus, either inactivated (killed), or partially attenuated (weakened), and when the immune system sees this virus, it mounts an innate immune response, which then presents a piece of it to the adaptive immune system that maintains a memory of that virus for future reference.
The limitation with these purified protein vaccines is that in a healthy human, where there is only a small dose of the virus, the innate immune system neutralises it quickly, leaving nothing for the adaptive immune system to respond to, or to remember. On the other hand, giving a larger dose is very expensive and harder to manufacture.
An elegant solution to this problem is to include an adjuvant - a material specifically delivered alongside the virus which irritates the immune system thereby stimulating it to respond. Examples of adjuvants in vaccines are polyethylene glycol (PEG) and mercury, the latter which has been removed from modern vaccines in Australia.
Types of vaccines include:
Examples of live-attenuated vaccines are measles, mumps, rubella (MMR combined), smallpox, chickenpox, yellow fever, and rotavirus. This type of vaccine contains a weakened form of the pathogen, which stimulates the immune system to react with a significantly reduced chance of infection. As they are similar to natural infection, they can provide a strong immune response with only 1 or 2 doses creating antibodies against the pathogen that last a lifetime. Limitations with live-attenuated vaccines is that they may not be safe for those who are immunocompromised, or have weakened immune systems, and they require refrigeration so, don’t store well.
Inactivated vaccines include influenza, polio (shot only), rabies and hepatitis A vaccines. These vaccines contain a dead form of the pathogen, and produce a lesser immune response than the live-attenuated form, so booster shots may be required for ongoing immunity. In the case of influenza, as the virus mutates regularly, flu vaccines don’t provide lasting protection, hence yearly vaccination is required for protection against the most recent or emerging strains.
Toxoid vaccines contain small amounts of harmful toxins that are made by the pathogen, and can stimulate the immune system to react against the parts of the pathogen that make the toxin, rather than the pathogen itself. Examples of toxoid vaccines are tetanus and diptheria.
Viral vector vaccines
A viral vector is a virus rendered harmless that is then modified to deliver an antigen particle (part of the virus to be targeted, e.g. the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein DNA). Adenoviruses, parvoviruses or paramyxoviruses are commonly used as they are relatively benign to humans e.g. the chimpanzee-origin adenovirus. Once injected, the host cells receive the instructions encoded in DNA molecules to reproduce the antigen (spike protein) and the immune system responds and builds immunity to that particle. Examples of viral vector vaccines include vaccines produced for COVID-19 (Astra-Zeneca), influenza, and studies done for Zika, Ebola, and HIV.
Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines
Studied as early as 1989, and subsequently modified since its current use, the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine uses lipid nanoparticles (bubbles of fat) to assist the fragile mRNA to be carried into cells. The mRNA provides the instructions required for the cell to produce part of a virus e.g. SARS-CoV-2 spike protein as the COVID-19: Pfizer/Comirnaty, Moderna/Spikevax vaccines do.
Cells begin producing the spike protein, which the immune system then finds, attacks and remembers for future infection. mRNA vaccines do not require an adjuvant to stimulate an effective immune response, though often include PEG, which is used in other vaccines as an adjuvant, to enhance delivery.
Nucleic acid based vaccines (which also includes DNA containing vaccines) do not require large scale growth of pathogenic organisms for production, and therefore reduce risk factors such as contamination, or release of infectious agents, and decreases manufacture time.
After the initial discovery and modification, mRNA vaccines were studied in a limited (29 participants) Phase 1 trial conducted in cancer patients in 2012, and small studies in Germany and USA (of 201 participants)for delivery of flu viruses H10N8 and H7N9. However, this technology was not widely studied in large cohorts until emergency provisions were granted for use for COVID-19 in 2020. Aside from these emergency provisions, all vaccinations are required to meet stringent 3 phase trials that can take 5 - 10 years.
Subunit recombinant vaccines
This type of vaccine, which includes pertussis (whooping cough), hepatitis B, and human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines, contain only parts of the pathogen or ‘subunits’ rather than the entire pathogen. Side effects tend to be less common as there are less components.
Polysaccharide / conjugate vaccines
These vaccines fight bacteria that have an outer coating of polysaccharides (a sugar-like substance) that disguises an antigen on its surface, making it hard for immature immune systems of children to recognise and respond to. The vaccines are conjugated (connected) to join the polysaccharides to the antigen, which enhances immune recognition.
Recombinant nanoparticle vaccines
These vaccines work in the same way as protein subunit recombinant vaccines, although instead of breaking down actual viruses, the protein subunits of a virus are manufactured. An example of this is the use of moth cells in the NovaVax COVID-19 vaccine to generate the spike protein. These vaccines do require an adjuvant, such as Matrix-M saponin-based in the case of NovaVax.
Many people are affected in some way after having a vaccination. The vast majority of these are effects that are short-lived, and are related to the intended immune response of the vaccination.
Some recipients will respond to vaccines with a true allergy reaction. With the most severe reactions resulting in anaphylaxis, these allergic reactions stimulate an IgE antibody response and are quite rare. Allergic reactions may be in response to any component of the vaccine, but more commonly to non-active ingredients, notably PEG.
For vaccines that make use of adjuvants, the adjuvants themselves may bear some responsibility for vaccine injury. Adjuvants are designed to irritate the immune system to enhance the efficacy of the vaccine by activating the immune system to respond to the vaccine, however, in some people it may be a trigger for the immune system to respond in undesirable ways such as autoimmunity.
Adjuvants in vaccines have included very small doses of mercury (which is no longer used in Australia), aluminium, and polyethylene glycol (PEG). Under usual conditions, these substances would enter the body via the regular channels (nose, mouth, skin) and thus the body may appropriately deal with them. When bypassing the regular channels, delivered directly by needle, the same substances may cause the body to react unusually.
It has also been observed that mRNA vaccines may also trigger autoimmune conditions. Not enough time has passed since the adoption of mRNA vaccines for the effects and mechanisms thereof to be well understood.
Symptoms of vaccination can be mild and transient, moderate, long-lasting or in rare instances, can result in death.
Some vaccine symptoms are expected, as the immune system launches a response to the vaccine, such as fever and fatigue. A symptom of vaccination injury, however, is an unexpected reaction that causes harm.
The number of people injured by vaccines is low, and the number that die is even lower, however, for those affected including loved ones, it is real, unexpected, and can be life-changing.
The most common vaccine reactions are considered mild symptoms, such as:
These symptoms are usually transient, lasting a couple of days to a week. In some cases they can continue, and may appear alongside more moderate symptoms:
The vast majority of people with mild to moderate reactions recover quickly, with no ongoing effects.
An adverse event is any reaction that was unintended, and undesirable. All drug manufacturers must list adverse reactions on their vaccine information leaflet, and this information is readily available to the public.
Adverse events of COVID-19 vaccines
As recorded by VAERS, of the 1,400,350 vaccine adverse event reports for COVID-19 vaccination through September 2022, 12% were serious enough to result in hospitalisation. Many of the symptoms of vaccine injury are also experienced with COVID-19 infection, so in some cases, it is not easy to distinguish between the two.
In Australia, mild to moderate reactions to the various COVID-19 vaccinations were very common, as with vaccinations in general, with little differences observed by age, sex, ethnicity, race or their baseline SARS-CoV-2 status.
Covid vaccine injury symptoms specifically noted are:
A recent study found in increased risk of vaccine injury in COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, with 10 - 15 per 10,000 vaccinated vs placebo at risk of serious adverse events.
Some cases of myocarditis and pericarditis have been reported worldwide in response to the mRNA COVID-19 vaccinations. Research is still looking at the long term effects of vaccine induced myocarditis and pericarditis, which can also occur as a result of COVID-19 infection.
Reporting and monitoring of vaccine injury
Adverse events are thought to be under-reported, particularly in groups with mild-moderate reactions, and in groups who are hesitant to report for a variety of reasons.
The TGA reported on 21 August 2022 that the total reporting rate of all adverse events to COVID-19 vaccines in Australia was 135,682 from 63,002,090 total administered doses, making a reporting rate of 2.2 per 1000 doses. This demonstrates that the reported incidence of adverse reactions is very low.
Of those total adverse events, the breakdown by brand of vaccine is:
Australian vaccine injury compensation scheme
An Australian government scheme allows for claims for people who have suffered moderate to severe impact due to an adverse reaction to a TGA approved COVID-19 vaccine.
“For immunisation programs, the community owes a debt of gratitude to an individual who experiences serious injury due to a vaccine offered and accepted in good faith” RACGP, 2020
Vaccine injured people can experience difficulties and frustrations in getting an accurate diagnosis, or being taken seriously. It is understandable that practitioners are cautious in attributing injury to vaccination due to the potential for mistrust or misunderstanding by some segments of the population.
Currently there is no specific conventional medicine approach to managing adverse effects from vaccination. As such, vaccine reaction treatment is usually targeted to manage symptoms.
Mild effects such as fever, pain and flu like symptoms are managed with over the counter medicines such as paracetamol and ibuprofen.
More significant effects, such as myocarditis, pericarditis, and blood clots are treated with anti-inflammatory and anti-thrombotic medications prescribed by doctors.
Serious complications may require hospitalisation for specialised treatment for vaccine reactions.
Whilst medical attention may be necessary for managing acute reactions to vaccination, functional medicine can do much to facilitate recovery when chronic symptoms such as cognitive decline, fatigue, exercise intolerance and systemic inflammation persist. Those who are immune compromised can benefit from treatment strategies both prior to and following vaccination.
Functional testing will allow your practitioner to evaluate the following processes, and identify where dysfunction may be occurring:
Supplementation with key vitamins, nutrients, polyphenols and other antioxidants have been shown to support and improve immune function, improve detoxification pathways and support cells, and may include:
Anti-inflammatory supplements can reduce inflammation to linings of blood vessels, and to organs such as the heart and brain that results in ‘brain fog’, which is a common feature of both vaccination injury and COVID-19 infection. These supplements include:
Fatigue associated mitochondrial dysfunction can be treated using supplementation that supports the mitochondria's main function of producing ATP, otherwise known as energy.
People with other existing health conditions such as digestive issues, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes are at increased risk of complications following vaccination or infection with the SARS-CoV2 virus. As part of a vaccine injury functional medicine approach, these conditions are clinically evaluated and treated to address their immune health and inflammation and to facilitate recovery.
The foundation for recovery from any systemic dysfunction is always grounded in a healthy diet and lifestyle. Functional medicine practitioners and health coaches are experts in helping people find the diet that works for them, and in helping build sustainable, health promoting lifestyle strategies to live an active life, improve sleep and manage stress.
At Melbourne Functional Medicine, our practitioners and health coaches understand that making changes can be difficult at a time when you don’t feel well, and have strategies to help.
Are you ready for a personalised, natural functional medicine treatment to improve your immune health? Our unique model of care was designed with you in mind. Find out how below, then book a call today!
Swollen lymph nodes are an indication of ongoing immune activation.
The most fundamental strategy is to ensure a healthy, diet of a wide range of fresh, whole fruits and vegetables, high in good quality proteins (either animal or vegetable).
Drinking at least 2 litres of clean, filtered water ensures cells have sufficient hydration for proper function.
Antioxidant supplements such as Vitamin C, quercetin, and resveratrol, and herbal medicines such as echinacea, elderberry, astragalus and olive leaf extract can all support the immune system to respond in a healthy manner.
Though rare, there are different types of covid vaccine injuries, and each case has varying symptoms. There is no single treatment, although many treatments will be based around supporting your immune system to respond in a healthy fashion, to reduce inflammation, and to restore mitochondrial function to restore energy.
Your primary healthcare physician should first rule out other causes. Once this has been confirmed, seeking the help of functional medicine practitioners who work with people experiencing all kinds of chronic, systemic conditions may be helpful in improving your health.
There are instances, though rare, of various types of neurological conditions associated with vaccination injuries, such as Guillan-barre syndrome, complex regional pain syndrome, and others.
It is important to seek the advice of your primary healthcare physician to rule out other causes.
Yes, immunocompromised people can get vaccines, with the advice of their primary physician or specialist.
If you have a compromised immune system, seeking further support for optimal immune system function by a functional medicine practitioner can help.
Vaccines stimulate an immune response, in a system that is incredibly complex.
It would be difficult to say that any one thing damages the immune system, as there are some factors that challenge it, and some that enhance its function, and many things that do both.
The best way to support your immune system is to provide it with all the ingredients it needs to function optimally, such as:
Having the guidance and support of our healthcare team can give you the pesonalised advice and direction you need to improve immune health.
Can’t find what you’re looking for? Reach out to the team directly – we’ll be happy to assist.