As a pediatric nephrologist, lifelong kidney patient and two-time kidney transplant recipient, I am grateful that I had the privilege of being one of the early people to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. I received my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Christmas Day last year, and my second dose a few weeks later. I chose to become vaccinated so I could protect myself and my patients from COVID-19.
Like everyone else, my life has been turned upside down since the start of the pandemic. I was terrified of getting sick because those of us living with kidney disease are at increased risk of catching, becoming severely ill and even dying from COVID-19. I saw the impact of COVID-19 around the country, and also firsthand on patients in the hospital where I work and with my own family members and friends hospitalized with severe infections. I was anxiously awaiting the results of the first vaccine clinical trials from both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, and the results could not have been better, ultimately leading to FDA approval of both vaccines.
Understandably, many people with kidney disease have concerns about whether or not to receive the vaccine when it is available to them. You should ask questions and have a discussion with your doctor about the vaccines and your specific health condition to decide what is right for you. You can also educate yourself by reading information from reputable resources, like the American Kidney Fund's COVID-19 Vaccine FAQ page or information put out by your doctor, dialysis clinic, transplant center or hospital.
I cannot tell you what is right for you and your health, but I can share my experience of getting the vaccine with you and why I decided to get vaccinated. We know for a fact from other diseases that vaccines save lives. The COVID-19 vaccines were tested on people with a wide range of health conditions and were shown to be safe and effective. The vaccine trials only included a few people with kidney disease and none with transplants, so it is true that we do not have a lot of direct data in kidney patients yet.* However, as doctors and scientists, we can still make recommendations based on the data we do have, along with our experience and judgement.
Based on a combination of information about these new vaccines in the general population and what is known about other types of vaccines in kidney patients, several national groups representing kidney, dialysis, transplant and infectious disease doctors have recommended the vaccine for people with kidney disease. These experts believe the benefits of vaccination in preventing the known dangers of COVID-19, especially in high risk kidney patients, outweighs the small, potential risk of side effects from the vaccines themselves, as has already been shown to be true in the general population. Since the FDA's approval of both vaccines, millions of doses have been given around the world, including to people with kidney disease, on dialysis and with kidney transplants, like me.
We still need more data in people living with kidney disease and transplants, but after reviewing studies and talking with my doctors, other healthcare workers with transplants, immunologists and infectious disease experts, I was very comfortable with my decision to get vaccinated as soon as I could. The benefits of taking the vaccine outweighed the potential risks for me!
I had only mild arm soreness after my first and second doses. Even though some people have a fever, fatigue and aches for a short amount of time after getting vaccinated, these reactions are much milder and last much shorter than the potential symptoms of a full-blown coronavirus infection. In fact, these reactions are a sign that your immune system is responding well to the vaccine and is prepared to fight the actual virus when if and when it comes. I believe in the science and research behind the vaccines and am super excited to participate in studies that are already happening to understand how well these new vaccines work in people with kidney disease. By being a part of a research study, my experience getting the vaccine can help inform and reassure doctors and other people with kidney disease about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine.
It is perfectly fine to have questions and to talk with your doctor about what is right for you at this time. New information will continue to come out about COVID-19 infections, the vaccines and treatments, and the medical advice doctors give may change with the new information. If you and your doctor decide it is not the right time for you to get the COVID-19 vaccine yet, that just makes it even more important for those around you, including friends and family, to receive the vaccine when they are able, so they can reduce the risk of carrying the infection and protect you as much as possible.
Even now after being fully vaccinated, I will continue the things I have been doing all along to protect myself from COVID-19, including staying home as much as possible, social distancing, wearing a mask and washing my hands. These precautions will continue to be important whether or not you choose to receive the vaccine now, as we continue to learn more about how the vaccines are working in people with kidney disease and how long their protection lasts.
*Additional studies have come out since the time I originally wrote this post. New data suggests that the vaccines are safe in kidney transplant recipients, but they may not provide complete protection against COVID-19 for us as they do for the general public. More complete studies in transplant recipients are still going on. I still believe that some protection against COVID-19 is better than no protection at all. If you are living with a kidney transplant, please remember to continue to practice safe social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing techniques, even after you get vaccinated, to ensure your safety.