Millions of Aussies facing grim question
Older Australians face a "really tough" decision about whether to get the AstraZeneca vaccine, with one expert saying it is a trade-off between individual and community benefits.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is being rolled out to Australia's over 50s community, with experts saying the risk of getting COVID-19 outweighed the risk of rare but possibly deadly blood clots.
However, many in the community are concerned about getting blood clots after 18 cases of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine were discovered in Australia. One person has died so far, with 1.8 million doses administered.
Experts are still recommending over 50s get the jab because the risk of serious complications from AstraZeneca is "infinitesimally small" for this age group, Dr Ian Gemmell, the West Australian-born medical director of a large vaccination centre in Salisbury in the UK told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Dr Gemmell, whose district hospital was overrun by COVID-19 during the northern winter, believes Australians should embrace vaccinations ahead of winter, which could see a resurgence of the disease.
"If people delay getting their vaccination or choose not to have it because they don't consider it an issue, it is going to come back and it is going to bite you on the backside," he said.
Melbourne University epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely acknowledged there was a greater risk of an outbreak in winter but he believes there is only a "remote chance" that the virus will cause a full-blown outbreak similar to Melbourne's second wave last year that caused around 800 deaths.
"I think the chance is remote because I think we'll see lockdowns before that happens," he said.
However, Prof Blakely said there was still a risk and this means those who haven't had the vaccine - or at least their first dose - would be vulnerable.
He also believes getting vaccinated is still an astute thing to do.
"I think the best decision is to get AstraZeneca now," he said.
"You may have to get Pfizer or Moderna next year as well but that's fine."
Prof Blakely, who is 54 years old and is himself weighing up the risk of getting the AstraZeneca vaccine, said if all over 50s got vaccinated, then Australia could potentially open up to international travel months earlier than if a lot of people waited.
"It's a really interesting trade-off between individual risk versus herd immunity," he said.
He said there was a community benefit to everyone getting vaccinated as early as possible so that Australia can start opening up next year. This was being balanced against a "small individual benefit" for over 50s waiting (as long as there is not another outbreak in the community).
"As an individual of 50 years plus - I am 54 years old - I could make a decision to not get AstraZeneca, and wait for Modern and Pfizer to be available for people over 50," he said.
"At an individual level I'm allowed, and you could argue that it's a rational decision because of concerns about clotting, and because you know that another vaccine will be available in five, six or eight months that is a lower risk.
"The downside of that is if a lot of people over 50 do that and this delays Australia opening up."
Prof Blakely said the economy would eventually suffer if Australia doesn't allow things like travel to return.
"If we're not ready (with vaccinations) we'll have to play catch up with other countries," he said.
While he does not think Australia should open up before it's ready, he believes there will be a time when the country has to pivot and accept more risk from allowing international travel.
"It's a really interesting trade-off and one we are starting to confront now."
Another factor is whether over 50s who get the Astra Zeneca vaccine will need to get a booster shot next year of Pfizer of Moderna to protect against new variants.
But Prof Blakely said there was some evidence, with more data hopefully available soon, that getting the AstraZeneca jab and then boosting it with a shot of Pfizer or Moderna next year could provide even better protection as it boosts the immune response even more.
Associate Professor Margie Danchin, a paediatrician and immunisation expert at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, has also previously told news.com.au that people can't just change their minds overnight about vaccination and expect to be protected.
It takes three and a half months to get the maximum amount of protection from the AstraZeneca vaccine as there is a 12-week wait between the first and second dose, and it takes two weeks for the body to produce the maximum immune response after the second jab.
"They can't get immediate protection if they change their mind so it's good to plan now," Prof Danchin said.
"We have a good situation in Australia so it's a good time to get the vaccination, before the borders open up."
Prof Danchin also pointed out the blood clotting issue was now well-known among health professionals and the public, so most cases are now being picked up and treated early.
Of the seven most recent cases of TTS, only one person is still in hospital, with the others all home and well.
"Now we can pick it up quickly and treat it much more quickly so people have better outcomes," she said.
Originally published as Millions of Aussies facing grim question