I got my AstraZeneca shot on March 20. I am one of the lucky group of Ontarians in their 60s who were cleared to get an early jab of the vaccine. As I said then, I felt an immediate surge of relief at being at least partly inoculated, despite all the headlines that were appearing about the extremely remote chance of getting a blood clot.
Those headlines have been piling up again lately. “B.C. records first case of rare blood clot.” “New Brunswick reports blood-clot death.” “Alberta confirms blood-clot-disorder death linked to AstraZeneca vaccine.”
The biggest came when Ottawa’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) said it would “preferentially recommend” mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna over viral vector vaccines AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson. That left many of those who have had the AZ shot feeling confused, worried and even betrayed. They had been told to take whichever vaccine they could find. Now this.
So am I still glad I got AZ? You bet I am.
AstraZeneca is a fantastic vaccine. Study after study has shown it – and indeed all the major vaccines – to be safe and highly effective. NACI itself said so after the furor over its announcement.
Though the announcement was ham-handed, all it was really saying was that those who are neither vulnerable nor living in a COVID-19 hot spot could consider waiting for one of the mRNA vaccines, which have not been shown to carry even minimal risks and are becoming widely available. NACI’s leaders were at pains to say afterward that those who got AZ should not feel any vaxxer’s remorse. The viral vector vaccines such as AZ do a marvellous job of protecting those who get it from severe illness, hospitalization and death – which is what it’s all about, after all.
AZ has been the backbone of the highly successful vaccination campaign in Britain. Thirty million doses have been administered there, around 60 per cent of all shots. The number of new COVID-19 cases has plummeted and the country is in the early stages of reopening. Confidence in vaccines is high. Most British people seem to be brushing aside fears about clots.
That is only sensible, given the numbers. By April 24 about 1.7 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine had been administered in Canada. That resulted in seven cases of blood clots. The United States, meanwhile, has reported 17 cases of clots out of eight million doses of the J&J vaccine. The risk of developing clots after being immunized has been put at between one in 50,000 and one in 100,000.
To put those odds in perspective, the U.S. National Safety Council puts the risk of dying of sunstroke at one in 8,912, of a cataclysmic storm at one in 31,394, of hornet, wasp and bee stings at 46,562, of a plane crash at one in 188,364, of lightning at one in 218,106 and of a railway accident at one in 243,765. Most of us don’t waste much time worrying about dying of sunstroke or bee stings. So why worry about the risk from a vaccine that protects those who get it from a sometimes devastating and even fatal illness?
Sadly, putting things in perspective is not something modern humans do very well. We fear scary events, such as the abduction of children by strangers, that in real life are exceedingly uncommon. We drive our kids to school to protect them, even though the risk of being hurt from a car-related incident is far higher than from anything that might happen on the way to class. We ignore the fact that in most ways our lives are much safer and more secure than they were for our mothers and fathers. Rates of death by fire, drowning, falls, cancer, car crashes, natural disaster and even, yes, lightning strike are all way down.
This crisis offers us a golden opportunity to get better at weighing risks. We are in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic that has killed more than three million people. Along comes a suite of wonder vaccines that promise to end all the suffering. Is now the time to worry about the chance that something might happen to us if we get the jab? Or is it the time to roll up our sleeves and accept a shot of the first vaccine that comes our way?
The answer was obvious to me back in March. It still seems that way now.
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