Dr. Alika Lafontaine, an anesthesiologist practicing in Grande Prairie Alberta, shares his expertise and knowledge about the COVID-19 vaccine.
As an Indigneous person with Cree, Anishnaabe, Métis and Pacific Islander roots, Dr. Lafontaine understands the hesitancy that many First Nations people face when considering getting vaccinated for the Coronavirus. Due to a long-standing history of betrayal and mistrust, many Indigenous Peoples are reminded of experimentation that took place at the hands of the Canadian government. Dr. Lafontaine doesn’t believe that’s what’s happening in the context of the COVID-19 vaccine.The COVID-19 vaccine is a result of multiple people and governments working together for an intended outcome.
“What’s really happened is that the entire scientific community, the entire medical community, and governments across the world have invested time, money and expertise and have focused on making this one thing happen,” says Dr. Lafontaine. “It's an incredible thing that in less than a year, we as a global community have been able to get to this point.”
The speed with which the vaccine was created is a reflection of the entire medical community’s focus on a common goal, which is to fight back against the virus. The vaccine works by activating the immune system and getting it to respond to infections that it may not be sensitized to yet, says Dr. Lafontaine.
There's two ways your body fights against infection -- it gets exposed to the infection and learns that way; or, it gets exposed to parts of the infection, or a weaker form of the infection, and still obtains the same information. “Essentially, that's how vaccines work,” says Dr. Lafontaine. “It’s a way for [your body] to learn how to fight back against a disease without having to be exposed to the disease itself.” The vaccine is an opportunity to avoid a lot of harm that can result from contracting the virus, says Dr. Lafontaine.
It’s the first time in medicine that he’s seen scientists and governments thoughtfully making decisions about who receives the vaccine first, including Indigenous Peoples being added to the first phases of the rollout. “That may feel very different to you, but the reason you're getting access to the vaccine [first] is because we as a medical system have realized that COVID-19 spreads much faster in [Indigenous] communities,” says Dr. Lafontaine. “The impact that it could have on our communities – losing our Elders, Knowledge Keepers and youth – has an outsized impact compared to Canadian society.”
As someone who works in the anesthesia department and provides support within the intensive care unit, Dr. Lafontaine received his vaccine. He encourages people to approach any sort of medicine – Western or Traditional – with the understanding that anything that helps you function in your daily life is medicine.
“It's important for us to get vaccinated that way we can go back to the lives that we had before,” he says. “If we want to get back to harvesting medicine, celebrating together and [practising] ceremony – the way that we get there is through the vaccine.
“The vaccine is a solution to this [virus] and one of the things that my mom always tells me is that when we ask the Creator for solutions they come in a way that we don't expect and science is one of the ways that I think the Creator provides solutions to us.”
Dr. Lafontaine encourages everyone to think about getting the vaccine, and he supports people who need a bit more time to consider the benefits. “I respect that as a medical professional,” he says. “But, I really encourage you to think about the positive effects that [the vaccine] will have on you, your families and your communities.”
When asked about the possible side effects of the vaccine, Dr. Lafontaine says it’s a reasonable question and one that is important to have answered before getting the vaccine – that way people know what to expect. “When I received my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, my arm was extremely sore and that's a common side effect of injection of any medication, especially into the muscle,” he says. “When I received the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, I found that the 24 hours after I received it I kind of had this overwhelming feeling of fatigue. After 24 hours, that resolved.”
Anytime you put a drug into your system, whether it's a Western drug derived from a pharmaceutical process or a Traditional medicine, those things don't just act on what you're trying to treat, they act within the context of that medication within the entire body, says Dr. Lafontaine. The fatigue he experienced was the effect of the vaccine stimulating his immune system.
“A side effect doesn't mean that the drug or medication isn't working properly,” he says. “[If you decide to get the vaccine], be informed, know what to expect and plan around the [side] effect[s] that the vaccine could have on you.”
Indigenous communities are built on family units including networks and relationships, says Dr. Lafontaine adding that whenever we get sick or unwell, we lean on those social networks in order to become better. But when we're healthy, others can lean on us.
“Our communities will make it through this pandemic. We've lived through hundreds of years of oppression and disease, and colonial impacts. We will survive this, and we will be stronger if we remain healthy.”
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We want to be a healthy community so we can be forceful and strong for generations to come.