Tackling jab hesitancy vital after latest AstraZeneca setback

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The news this week that AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine is no longer recommended for those aged between 50 and 60 would have come as a shock to many. After people were encouraged to line up for both doses of the vaccine, they have been told it is now only considered safe to have the second.

Not surprisingly, hundreds have cancelled not only their first dose, but their second, despite the assurances from experts and politicians. After a slow start to the vaccination rollout – which sped up only after the latest outbreak in Melbourne – this change of mind by medical experts was another unwelcome complication.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is now recommended for those aged over 60.Credit:Eddie Jim

While it may be tempting to point the finger at Canberra for this latest setback, a broader view might give some pause for thought.

Only 18 months after the start of the pandemic, and following a swift process of creating, testing, approving, manufacturing and rolling out a vaccine, more than 2.5 billion doses have been given worldwide. That is a scientific achievement with few, if any, parallels in human history. It will save tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of lives.

But it has come at a cost.

Each vaccine underwent clinical trials that involved tens of thousands of people before being approved. Nevertheless, when vaccines are administered to tens of millions of people, it’s clear that incidents may arise that were not detected during the trials. Thankfully, most of the vaccines that have been given the green light have proved to be relatively safe and free of life-threatening side effects.

The first signs of a possible link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and blood clotting appeared as it was rolled out in Europe. This led to countries such as Germany, Norway and Spain calling for a halt to using it until further research was done by the European Medicines Agency, which evaluates and supervises all medicinal products in the EU. When the link was confirmed, in small numbers, this led some nations including Australia to recommend its use only for those over 50.

There was no one right decision on setting that limit. Health authorities had to balance the risks associated with the AstraZeneca vaccine against the significant benefits of vaccination in protecting individuals and the community against severe illness and death – a balance that varies from country to country.

In Britain, AstraZeneca is recommended for people aged over 40. In Italy, it’s recommended only for those over 60, while in Germany, which was hit by a third wave of infections in March and April, it is being offered to all adults. The decision in Australia to change the cut-off from 50 to 60 was made after three new cases of blood clotting were confirmed – two women aged 55 and 65 from Victoria, and a 53-year-old woman from NSW – along with nine new probable cases across the country.

With so few COVID-19 infections in Australia, the decision was made to take a more cautious approach to handing out AstraZeneca. On balance, taking into account the risk of possible fatal side effects versus the risk of contracting the virus, and the expected extra supply of the Pfizer vaccine later this year, The Age agrees this was the right call. We can grumble about it, but we cannot pick and choose the health advice we listen to.

Even so, this will have consequences. Vaccination hesitancy is a substantial problem. In a recent survey, a quarter of respondents said they had no plans to get vaccinated.

Early evidence suggests the change to the advice on AstraZeneca may make more people fearful. The federal government must double down in its efforts to convince people to protect themselves. Standing up at press conferences is not enough any more. We need a public education campaign. The case is there to be made; it’s time to make it in a much more convincing way.

Gay Alcorn sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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