Choosing the AstraZeneca vaccine involves weighing up the risks and benefits. Young people weigh these differently from older generations, and should be allowed to make informed decisions for themselves.
The mixed messaging around the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine for those under the age of 60, and in particular under the age of 40, has been beyond disappointing.
First the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) changed its advice to state that Pfizer was preferable to AstraZeneca for those under 50; then it was preferable for for those under 60; then Scott Morrison went rogue and told the country it would be a free-for-all; and then Queensland Chief Health Officer made it clear she didn’t want anyone under 40 taking the AZ vaccine.
And Associate Professor Christopher Blyth, co-chair of ATAGI, stated that AstraZeneca should only be offered to under 40s in “pressing circumstances”, with the number of situations where they should get the vaccine “quite small”. The “pressing circumstances” are ill-defined.
The fearmongering and politicisation around vaccinations has been extraordinary, made worse by tabloids plastering on their front pages stories about vaccine complications.
Decisions are being made solely by weighing up the medical benefits and harms. No arguments are being made about the massive benefits to young people of having a higher vaccinated population.
The ATAGI recommendations clearly state that under 60s can take the vaccine: “AstraZeneca can be used in adults aged under 60 years for whom
- [Pfizer] is not available,
- the benefits are likely to outweigh the risks for that individual and
- the person has made an informed decision based on an understanding of the risks and benefits.”
Just 5% of the Australian population is vaccinated, leading to a lengthened pandemic, the never-ending cycles of lockdowns and border closures, while many other parts of the world are returning to normal.
The ATAGI guidelines are clear about balancing risks and benefits for the individuals.
Benefits of vaccinating
Barring young Australians from opting in to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine is creating absolute and definite harms.
The loss of autonomy, one of the key principles in medical ethics, is one. Then there are the mental health costs of further prolonging of the pandemic, the never-ending cycle of lockdowns, and the politicisation of the media and health response are others. The helplessness we feel. The anger at our lives being put on hold.
And there are profound physical and mental health benefits that flow from much higher levels of vaccination.
Ask any young person what they want, and the answer is a return to normal life. To gyms and cafes remaining open; to not losing casual work at a moment’s notice; to being able to plan interstate trips, to go to concerts or music festivals.
Yet these benefits are not being factored into any equations about allowing young people to take the AstraZeneca vaccine.
While critics of AstraZeneca point at 20,000 new infections a day in the United Kingdom, the more important statistic is that deaths are remaining in the low double digits, on par or lower than those from the flu, which can claim upwards of 5,000 – 10,000 lives per year. Past Covid-19 waves have seen 500 or more deaths a day when cases reached 20,000 a day.
AstraZeneca is effective. Germany has just approved it for use in all age groups, on a voluntary basis.
Contraceptive pill similar risk profile
And so many medications and treatments we use in medicine, for far milder ailments, have much worse adverse effects than the AstraZeneca vaccine. Yet we don’t even question these.
After 4 million doses of the vaccine, 64 Australians have developed the clotting disorder Thrombosis with Thrombocytopenia. So 0.0016% of people – 1 in 62,500 people – develop TTS. Some 3% of these people will die.
Compare that to other medical interventions young people regularly receive. The most relevant is the Combined Oral Contraceptive Pill (COCP).
Currently, 2.5 million women (47.9%) between 18 and 49 use contraception; 49% use the COCP. That’s slightly more than 1 million women.
The risk of a deep vein thrombosis and/or pulmonary embolism, or a clot, for these women is is 0.06 per 100 pill-years. So about 1 in 1,600 Australian women aged 18-49 who take the pill for a year will develop a blood clot. The fatality rate is also about 3%.
The pill is prescribed for many young women with hardly a second thought or mention of the risk of clotting. The supposed risk of the vaccine, on the other hand, is used as a barrier to preventing these same young women – and young people more broadly – from taking a vaccine that will speed up the return of normal life.
Vaccination is the only way out
We die from car accidents. We die from suicide. We go out and get drunk on Friday and Saturday nights, which, in the long run, will cause more deaths.
Sources familiar with the vaccine rollout say that AstraZeneca vaccines are being thrown out as they pass their expiry date. With so many vulnerable people remaining unvaccinated the world over, this is a catastrophic moral failing.
William Davies wrote in The Guardian recently that:
“over the past 15 months, we have witnessed one of the most remarkable acts of collective sacrifice since 1945 – of the young for the old, the low-risk for the high-risk. This is something to be recognised and celebrated. Instead, our political and media gerontocracy have simply pocketed the gift and barely mentioned it again”.
I expressed similar ideas 12 months ago, as lockdowns began sweeping the world.
What I and many of my generation feared has come to pass. We have stayed at home and tolerated the lockdowns, with their devastating effects on our job prospects, mental health and social lives. The risk Covid-19 poses to us is low to minimal.
The lived experience of seeing 18 months or more of our twenties and thirties – the years when we most want to be out and about, socialising and exploring – evaporate, is far more obvious, pressing and harmful.
This is why more than 2,600 of my peers went and got vaccinated with AstraZeneca this past week. This is why many more of us want to.