The facts on COVID vaccines

09 Jun 2021 | 6 mins

This opinion piece by Professor Bruce Robinson, from UWA’s Medical School, was published in The West Australian on Saturday 5 June 2021.

Amid ongoing public debate, it is timely and important to know some of the fears and the facts about COVID-19 vaccinations.

The facts
All of the major COVID-19 vaccines are effective in up to 80 per cent of those immunised and even those individuals who still get COVID-19 despite being vaccinated will not require hospitalisation.

I confess that I did not expect this high level of efficacy of these vaccines.

The fears
Initial uncertainties have given way to one major fear —– severe clotting complications at rather unusual sites such as the brain and the gut, known as Thrombosis with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome (TTS).

In the past few months some major international studies by reputable groups have focused a spotlight on just how rare TTS is.

For example, European studies put the true risk of TTS following administration of the AstraZeneca vaccine to be around six events per million doses and a recent study by an Oxford University group of over half a million vaccinated patients showed that the risk of this sort of clotting syndrome following mRNA vaccines (such as the Pfizer vaccine) to be less but still around three per million.

The overall risks are clearly extremely low.

Crucial to this discussion is their comparison with the risk of severe clotting events if COVID-19 disease does strike, when it is at least six to ten times higher than it is for the vaccine alone.

Put more simply again, your health risks from contracting COVID are far worse than the health risks associated with getting the vaccine.

And don’t imagine that such fears are limited to the less educated. In the past two weeks a number of highly intelligent colleagues and friends have asked me if I can help them find a way to avoid the risks of the AstraZeneca vaccine in favour of the Pfizer vaccine.

I remind them that the risks of the vaccine are similar to them dying from a car accident on their way to work, or from a bolt of lightning or from a large blood clot in their lungs from their many air trips.

I also remind them that these risks are much lower than from dying from blood clots or lung failure if they were to actually get COVID-19.

Vaccine hesitancy/fear in multicultural communities
In every Western nation studied, culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) communities are at increased risk of developing severe COVID-19.

There are many reasons for that. Unfortunately, such communities are also generally most afraid of receiving the vaccine. A recent UK study revealed that the level of fear of vaccination in CaLD communities runs as high as 72 per cent.

Preliminary evidence in WA indicates similarly high levels of fear and distrust in such communities. This is a crucial issue, because around 20 per cent of Australians do not speak English as their first language. This vaccine hesitancy/fear is partly due to lack of access to accurate information which then gets replaced by rumours fuelled by dramatic social, electronic and print media reports of side effects and by rumours that vaccines are made from forbidden animal products or that they can induce infertility.

CaLD groups are also often the targets of anti-vaccination groups promoting their own products and/or conspiracy theories with tempting clickbait lies such as “experts slam COVID vaccines as unnecessary and ineffective”.

Importantly, the above UK study showed that after receiving accurate information at least half of such individuals refusing vaccination changed their minds.

Novel strategies being used in WA
The WA Government has brilliantly constrained the spread of COVID-19 and has also funded visionary new resources to tackle the above challenges.

Some of the most novel are in the areas of digital health (sophisticated monitoring/care of patients in isolation, including the use of artificial intelligence to provide early evidence of deterioration) and digital outreach, including to ethnic communities.

One example is the novel Early Digital Intervention for COVID-19 Therapy (EDICT) program, a collaboration between a number of University of WA, hospital, government and community groups.

EDICT is generating a digital network to proactively spread accurate information and respond rapidly to any COVID-19 outbreak in any of over 100 languages within 2-24 hours. If such a program had been available in Melbourne in 2020, they may well not have had their disastrous prolonged lockdown which cost them billions of dollars and triggered racial vilification.

Would I have the AstraZeneca vaccine?
As a frontline worker I have already had both of my COVID-19 vaccine doses. I had the AstraZeneca vaccine and didn’t give it a second thought because I knew the risk of adverse events was very remote.

Indeed in walking from the carpark into the hospital to get that vaccine I exposed myself to the risk of dying from a bolt of lightning — I didn’t give that a second thought either for the same reason.

Please get vaccinated and encourage everyone you know to do so.

It’s not totally safe but it is almost so. But it’s vastly safer than getting COVID-19.

Dr Bruce Robinson is a UWA professor of medicine and consultant respiratory physician at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital and director, EDICT Program

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