Last week, Tony Lannigan’s enthusiasm for vaccination against COVID-19 quickly turned to panic.
The 32-year-old had no known allergies, but sometimes felt slightly unwell after annual flu seizures, so staff at King’s County Memorial Hospital in Montague (PEI) indicated that she should wait 30 minutes after a Pfizer-BioNTech shot instead of the usual 15 to makes sure she’s okay.
It didn’t take long before she became very ill. The roof on her mouth itched, her tongue swelled and she became confused.
“I don’t remember everything, but I do remember looking around and seeing such anxious nurses,” she said.
Luckily, the emergency department was only a few steps away, and staff rushed her to where she said her heart began to pound, her blood pressure dropped dramatically, and her pelvis began to ache.
Treated with epinephrine
She remembers being treated with adrenaline, a drug used to treat severe allergic reactions, and began to shake uncontrollably. An ambulance took her to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Charlottetown, where she was admitted to intensive care.
I don’t remember everything, but I do remember looking around and seeing such anxious nurses.– Tony Lannigan
“I felt like I was running a marathon,” she said. “It was a really traumatic thing.”
Lannigan was released after two days when her blood counts improved, her heart returned to normal and she began to feel better.
At home in rural Montague, she said vision in one eye is still severely blurred – this is monitored by her doctor – and she is weak, extremely nervous and bouncy. Her head hurts, she has no appetite and does not sleep well.
“I feel like myself? Absolutely not. I’m a very bubbling girl – I don’t feel that. I feel very nervous or on the edge and I don’t know why,” she said. “My nerves are shot.”
She thought about the last text she sent her daughter just before the vaccination and told her he loved her.
“Could this be the last thing I said to my daughter?” she said.
It still supports vaccination
Lannigan herself works in the healthcare system and knows that anaphylactic reactions to medications, vaccines or foods are not uncommon. She said she still trusts the healthcare system in Canada.
“Just because it happened to me doesn’t … it means it’s going to happen to you or the person you love,” she said.
He urges people to receive COVID-19 vaccines, but also to learn for themselves what they are recording and whether they may be allergic to it.
Lannigan is happy that the vaccine was given to her in a hospital and not in one of the PEI mass clinics. “Would you get where you should be?” she wondered if she had gotten the needle somewhere else.
She has other questions too.
“Why I couldn’t get answers, why it happened. And I still don’t have the answers,” Lannigan said. I would like to know which ingredient in the vaccine caused her reaction and why.
Reactions “extremely rare”
Fatima Tokhmafshan is a Montreal-based geneticist and bioethicist who fights misinformation about COVID-19 on social media platforms, including TikTok. She helped launch COVID-19 Resources Canada, the group that launched the website and organized video meetings to answer experts ’questions about COVID-19.
She said it is normal and applies if you are concerned and have questions about vaccines, adding that side effects are “extremely rare”.
Tokhmafshan said it is important to stay on top of your health and share your health history with those who are vaccinated with any vaccine.
Vaccines are safe, work, and have been heavily tested. They are the silver bullet we have in this battle against the pandemic.– Fatima Tokhmafshan
“Vaccines are safe. They work, they’ve been tested hard,” she said. “They’re the silver bullet we have in this battle against the pandemic.”
Tokhmafshan urges anyone who offers them the vaccine to get it. She intends to do this herself when it comes her turn.
“Be heartfelt and know that people are monitoring every single side effect they report around the world,” she said.
“Different groups of experts meet very often, we discuss it, we discuss what the mechanism of this kind of reaction could be. So there are some unanswered questions for us as well, but together we are trying to find answers.”
Side effects that accompany them
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved for use in Canada on December 9, 2020, after scientists completed a two-month review of the company’s clinical trial data and found no significant safety concerns.
The public first heard about allergic reactions to the vaccine in early December when they suffered from a health worker in Alaska. Later in the month, she is a health worker in Hamilton, Ont. She announced her severe response.
On December 12, Health Canada issued a safety warning stating that people with allergies to any ingredient in Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 should not receive it.
Health Canada has been monitoring the reported side effects after vaccination against COVID-19 since early January. He notes that serious side effects such as allergic reactions are rare, and says the benefits of approved vaccines still outweigh the risks.
By March 19, 2021, Health Canada said there were 2,530 reports of side effects after vaccination against COVID-19 – that’s just under 68 reports per 100,000 doses given. Of these side effects, 320 were considered serious.
Slightly higher adverse reactions (1,444 in 263 serious) were reported by Pfizer-BioNTech as Moderna (1,079 in 54 serious). Covishield (a version of the AstraZeneca Serum Institute in India) had five reported side effects, one of which was serious.
The most common serious adverse event was anaphylaxis, which occurred in 59 cases, Health Canada reported. 24 post-vaccination deaths were reported; 13 were not vaccine-related and 11 are still being investigated.
COVID-19 more serious than vaccines
Tokhmafshan encourages everyone to review the lists of vaccine ingredients on the Health Canada website and share anything that stands out with their doctor. She said it is an ingredient that could cause an allergic reaction polyethylene glycol or PEG, although experts do not yet understand why this can happen.
She said some reports of serious side effects include rashes or prolonged fever, but they are not as serious when considered in addition to what is supposed to be prevented.
“You look at the rate of onset of these adverse effects and their nature and compare it to COVID-19, a disease,” she said. “The risk of many more inconveniences, illnesses and diseases due to the virus is much higher than with the vaccine.”
Health monitoring in Canada
In an electronic statement to CBC PEI, a Health Canada spokesman said they carefully monitor the safety and efficacy of approved COVID-19 vaccines after sale (meaning after approval) and inform Canadians by posting adverse event information.
Pfizer management said in December that there were no cases of severe allergic reactions to the vaccine during late clinical trials involving nearly 44,000 volunteers. However, this trial ruled out people with severe allergic reactions to any vaccine or any component of Pfizer-BioNTech.
The trial included approximately 6,000 participants with various allergic conditions, such as pollen allergies and food allergies. These participants had symptoms in the past, including anaphylaxis, but Pfizer said there were no vaccine-related anaphylactic episodes in the trial.
On April 1, Pfizer released data from a six-month update of its study group.
“No serious safety concerns were observed in trial participants up to six months after the second dose,” the company said. “Adverse reactions were generally consistent with previously reported results. The safety of the vaccine is now assessed in more than 44,000 participants aged 16 years and older, and more than 12,000 vaccinated have been followed for at least six months after the second dose.”
In her weekly briefing on Tuesday, PEI Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison said 27,448 doses of the vaccine have been given on Prince Edward Island so far and that the province is introducing vaccines.
Morrison pointed out that PEI residents vaccinate residents against 15 different diseases, including COVID-19, and reactions are rare, with only one or two anaphylactic reactions reported per year on the island.
“No matter where you receive the PEI vaccine, staff are trained and prepared for serious reactions such as anaphylaxis,” Morrison said.
The PEI aims to vaccinate with two doses of COVID-19 every autumn. Morrison said herd immunity can be achieved by vaccinating 80 percent of the eligible population with two doses.
More from CBC PEI