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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Explained: Why are Australians cancelling appointments to get their second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine?

With the Australian government’s decision to raise the recommended age for receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine to 60, many Australians started calling hospitals and healthcare centres to cancel their vaccine appointments.

By: Explained Desk | Panaji |
Updated: June 30, 2021 8:30:08 am
People wait in line outside a coronavirus disease vaccination centre at Sydney Olympic Park in Sydney, Australia, June 23, 2021. (Reuters Photo: Loren Elliott)

Amidst widespread vaccine hesitancy, the Australian government’s decision to raise the recommended age for receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine to 60 appears to have slowed down the country’s already lagging inoculation drive even further. Since the health guidelines were updated on Thursday, Australian doctors have noted a surge in the number of people cancelling their appointments to get their second dose of the jab.

People under the age of 60 have been advised to opt for the only approved alternative in the country — the Pfizer vaccine, which is presently in short supply.

Despite the AstraZeneca vaccine receiving a fair bit of bad press in recent months, health authorities in Australia are urging people to show up for both doses of the jab. “People who have had their first dose without any serious side effects can be confident in getting their second dose,” the Department of Health said in a statement.

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Why did the Australian government update its guidelines for the AstraZeneca vaccine?

Earlier this week, Australia raised the recommended age group for AtraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine to 60 and above, due to the risk of contracting a rare blood-clotting syndrome. Health Minister Greg Hunt said that those below the age of 60 should ideally choose to receive the Pfizer vaccine, further announcing that the government would immediately move to open access for the 40-59 age group.

According to the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, younger groups faced greater risk of contracting the blood clotting disorder called thrombosis and thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS), which is linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine. But the Department of Health still urged those who had already received one shot of the vaccine to show up for the second jab as almost all the cases of blood-clotting reported until now occurred after the first dose.

In spite of the health authority’s reassurance, many Australians over the age of 50 started calling hospitals and healthcare centres to cancel their vaccine appointments, BBC reported.

Following the updated guidelines, over 2.1 million people in the 50-59 age group who have not yet received a single dose of either vaccine are now eligible to receive the shot by Pfizer, supplies of which are limited. The country has ordered 40 million Pfizer vaccines, half of which will only arrive in the fourth quarter of this year.

Until April this year, the AstraZeneca shot was the main vaccine being meted out as part of Australia’s nationwide inoculation drive. Local labs had been set up to ramp up its production. But when reports of blood clotting due to the vaccine began to emerge, the government advised people under 50 to opt for the Pfizer shot.

The government has promised to significantly increase production of existing vaccines, and has also vowed to bring in other shots, such as those developed by Moderna and Novovax, by the end of the year.

What is the risk posed by the AstraZeneca vaccine?

Earlier this year, several countries suspended the use of Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine after reports of blood clots. Some countries, much like Australia, altered the way in which they administered the vaccine — largely on the basis of age or sex.

Practically speaking, Australia cannot afford to scrap the vaccine entirely. This is because it is its primary vaccine, and it is known to provide a high level of protection against death and hospitalisation due to Covid-19. Experts say that the jab is the country’s best bet to prevent new waves of the coronavirus pandemic, particularly in light of the emergence of more virulent strains of the deadly infection.

The risk of dying due to a case of vaccine-induced TTS is low, at about one in 2 million. Some experts have gone as far as saying that you are more likely to be struck by lightning than to contract the illness.

What is the status of Australia’s vaccination drive?

While Australia’s vaccination programme began in February, it still remains open only for people above the age of 40. So far, a mere 3 per cent of adults have been fully vaccinated, while 25 per cent have received at least one dose of the vaccine — placing Australia way behind other Western nations that have managed to inoculate a vast majority of their adult population.

Apart from the government’s inability to secure enough vaccines, widespread vaccine hesitancy is also to blame for Australia’s poor performance in inoculating its citizens against Covid, making herd immunity a distant dream. Reports of blood clotting due to the AstraZeneca vaccine has only deepened the fear amongst Australian citizens looking to get the jab.

Earlier, states were responsible for administering vaccines. However, following growing public criticism, the government appointed an army officer to lead a project called “Operation Vaccine Shield”.

Despite its low level of vaccinations, Australia started imposing strict lockdowns and a high level of vigilance since the pandemic first made its presence felt last year — a major factor that has contributed to the country’s low coronavirus caseload. Australia has had fewer than 30,300 cases and 910 deaths.

What are other countries doing about the AstraZeneca vaccine?

In the UK, the AstraZeneca jab is only available for people over 40, while Germany has banned its use for those under 60. In South Korea, only people over 30 are permitted to take the shot. In Chile, the minimum age for men to receive the vaccine has been raised to 45 from 18 — at par with the over 45 rule imposed on women.

Much like Australia, those under the age of 60 are not permitted to get the vaccine in Italy either. However, those who received one dose of the AstraZeneca shot in Italy will receive a different shot for their second dose.

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