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The first batch of COVID vaccines touched down in South Africa in February 2021. Health workers were the first to get a jab under the Sisonke study. But even before the country had bought any jabs, our reporters were writing about the logistics and the politics of the project. If you want to know how well the vaccines work, how the different jabs compare or what it takes to create a vaccine from research, to regulation, to rollout, you’re at the right place.

HomeArticlesWhat it’s like to be hospitalised and diabetic: ‘Vaccination saved my life’

What it’s like to be hospitalised and diabetic: ‘Vaccination saved my life’

  • Legal journalist Karyn Maughan, 42, has diabetes and spent most of the pandemic inside to avoid contracting SARS-CoV-2.
  • People with diabetes have a 59% higher risk of ending up in an intensive care unit when they fall ill with COVID-19.
  • Maughan got vaccinated as soon as she could, a decision that saved her life. She was hospitalised with COVID-19 ten days after she received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

When South Africa’s first COVID-19 case was identified in March last year, Karyn Maughan, one of the country’s leading legal journalists, was petrified. By that time, there was evidence from other countries, where the pandemic hit earlier, that some underlying conditions — or comorbidities — made people more likely to fall seriously ill with COVID.

Maughan, 42, had been living with one such illness for most of her life — she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when she was four and a half years old. This meant her pancreas produced too little insulin to allow the sugar she consumed to enter her cells to produce energy and Maughan therefore had to be injected with insulin daily for the rest of her life.

Studies have shown that people with diabetes have a 59% higher risk of ending up in an intensive care unit because of COVID and they have a 97% higher chance to be incubated. People with this comorbidity are also twice as likely as those without the condition to die of COVID. 

Trapped by terror: Being diabetic during the pandemic

“I was absolutely terrified of getting COVID,” Maughan says. “It also caused huge anxiety in my family, because they knew how vulnerable I was and have had to cope with many hospitalisations of me as a child with illnesses that started off as colds but then got so bad that I needed to go to hospital.

My parents and siblings asked: If that’s what happens to her with a cold, what will happen if she gets COVID?”

As a result, Maughan hardly left her house during the initial stages of the pandemic. During South Africa’s hard lockdown, a friend offered to stay with her “so that she could help me to get food and other necessities because I literally only stayed indoors”. For six months, Maughan barely interacted with anyone in person except for her friend, “because of my level of terror”.

[WATCH] ‘Vaccination saved my life’: Karyn Maughan shares her story at a health department press conference

On her return to Maughan’s house, her friend would — each time — “strip off her clothes and wash it”, then “shower and douse herself in sanitiser” to keep Maughan safe. 

So when COVID vaccinations became available in South Africa for Maughan’s age group, she registered immediately and got vaccinated on the same day.  

But ten days after she had her first Pfizer shot (you need two jabs to be fully vaccinated), Maughan started feeling dizzy and tired. “My blood pressure was extremely low and because of my history of diabetes my doctor recommended that I be hospitalised.” 

Before Maughan could be admitted to hospital, though, she had to be tested for COVID. 

“Vaccination literally saved my life”

When her test results returned positive, the lives of two people flashed through Maughan’s mind: a male and female journalist colleague, both living with diabetes, who had died of COVID a few weeks earlier. Neither had been vaccinated, because jabs for their age groups had not yet become available when they had fallen ill.

“I was scared I was going to die alone, that I would never see my family again,” Maughan recalls. “You weren’t allowed visitors and I had seen and heard of so many other people with COVID who had gone to hospital and then rapidly deteriorated.”

But Maughan’s chances of survival, as a vaccinated person, were significantly higher than those of her unvaccinated colleagues who had died of COVID. Real-life data from England shows that just one shot of the Pfizer jab she took, is 94% effective against hospitalisation (two shots are 96% effective). And United States data released in September, revealed that unvaccinated people are up to ten times more likely to die of COVID or be hospitalised if they had been infected with the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the disease, COVID-19), which is dominant in South Africa. 

And, although it’s still possible for fully vaccinated or partially vaccinated people (Maughan was partially vaccinated with one shot of Pfizer at the time of her infection) to contract SARS-CoV-2, a fully vaccinated person’s chances of getting infected is five times lower than that of an unvaccinated person, according to data from the US government’s Centres for Disease Control.  

Maughan had, of course, been hospitalised (she was admitted to a general ward) — but it was a precautionary measure because she lived with diabetes and to provide her with medical assistance while isolating. Maughan was released from hospital four days after she was hospitalised and never experienced any breathing problems that required oxygen support.

“In fact, my oxygen saturation levels were excellent,” she says. “At no stage during my hospitalisation was my life in danger, and that is because of vaccination.”

Real-life data from the Western Cape that was released on September 9, shows that unvaccinated health workers in the province are three times more likely to die of COVID than vaccinated workers. Of 292 COVID deaths in the Western Cape among people of 60 years and older between 14 and 20 August, only 5 (1.7%) deaths were among vaccinated people. 

Maughan concludes: “The data is overwhelming that vaccines work. They dramatically reduce your chances of ending up on a ventilator or dying of COVID. 

“Vaccination literally saved my life — the reason I survived COVID, and my colleagues didn’t, is because I had access to a vaccine and they didn’t.”

Mia Malan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bhekisisa. She has worked in newsrooms in Johannesburg, Nairobi and Washington, DC, winning more than 30 awards for her radio, print and television work.

Dylan Bush was a health journalist at Bhekisisa from February 2016 to September 2023.