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Depression, stress, loneliness and poor health can weaken the body’s immune system and lower the efficacy of covid-19 vaccines both under development and in early stages of distribution, a research by the Ohio State University, US, has indicated.

The researchers said environmental factors, as well as an individual’s genetics and physical and mental health, can weaken the immune system, slowing the response to a vaccine. This is particularly troubling, the report said, as fresh novel coronavirus cases surge globally, trigging a concurrent mental health crisis as people deal with isolation, economic stress, and uncertainty over the future. These challenges are the same factors that have been previously shown to weaken vaccine efficacy, particularly among the elderly.

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“In addition to the physical toll of covid-19, the pandemic has an equally troubling mental health component, causing anxiety and depression, among many other related problems. Emotional stressors such as these can affect a person’s immune system, impairing their ability to ward off infections," said Annelise Madison, the lead author of the paper.

“Our new study sheds light on vaccine efficacy and how health behaviours and emotional stressors can alter the body’s ability to develop an immune response. The trouble is that the pandemic in and of itself could be amplifying these risk factors," she said.

Vaccines work by challenging the immune system. Within hours of vaccination, there is an innate immune response at the cellular level as the body begins to recognize a potential biological threat. This frontline response by the immune system is eventually aided by the production of antibodies, which target specific pathogens. The continued production of antibodies helps determine how effective a vaccine is at conferring long-term protection. “In our research, we focus most heavily on the antibody response, though it is just one facet of the adaptive immune system’s response," said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University, and a senior author of the research paper.

The report, accepted for publication in the Perspectives on Psychological Science journal, has also suggested that it may be possible to reduce the negative effects with simple steps like exercise and sleep. “The thing that excites me is that some of these factors are modifiable," said Kiecolt-Glaser. “It’s possible to do some simple things to maximize the vaccine’s initial effectiveness."

Based on prior research, the researchers urge people to engage in vigorous exercise and get a good night’s sleep in the 24 hours before vaccination so that your immune system is operating at its peak.

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