If you think vaccination is an ordeal now, consider the 18th-century version. After having pus from a smallpox boil scratched into your arm, you would be subject to three weeks of fever, sweats, chills, bleeding and purging with dangerous medicines, accompanied by hymns, prayers and hell-fire sermons by dour preachers.
That was smallpox vaccination, back then. The process generally worked and was preferred to enduring “natural” smallpox, which killed around a third of those who got it. Patients were often grateful for trial-by-immunization — once it was over, anyway.
“Thus through the Mercy of God, I have been preserved through the Distemper of the Small Pox,” wrote one Peter Thatcher in 1764, after undergoing the process in a Boston inoculation hospital. “Many and heinous have been my sins, but I hope they will be washed away.”
Today, Americans are once again surprisingly willing, even eager, to suffer a little for the reward of immunity from a virus that has turned the world upside down.
Roughly half of those vaccinated with the Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, and in particular women, experience unpleasantness, from hot, sore arms to chills, headache, fever and exhaustion. Sometimes they boast about the symptoms. They often welcome them.
Suspicion about what was in the shots grew in the mind of Patricia Mandatori, an Argentine immigrant in Los Angeles, when she hardly felt the needle going in after her first dose of the Moderna vaccine at a March appointment.
A day later, though, with satisfaction, she “felt like a truck hit me,” Mandatori said. “When I started to feel rotten I said, ‘Yay, I got the vaccination.’ I was happy. I felt relieved.”
While the symptoms show your immune system is responding to the vaccine in a way that will protect against disease, evidence from clinical trials showed that people with few or no symptoms were also protected. Don’t feel bad if you don’t feel bad, the experts say.
“This is the first vaccine in history where anyone has ever complained about not having symptoms,” said immunologist Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
To be sure, there is some evidence of stronger immune response in younger people — and in those who get sick when vaccinated. A small study at the University of Pennsylvania showed that people who reported systemic side effects such as fever, chills and headache may have had somewhat higher levels of antibodies. The large trial for Pfizer’s vaccine showed the same trend in younger patients.