Graph ranks AstraZeneca's risk against other 'rare' dangers

It's an ugly furore that the troubled Australian vaccine rollout did not need.

But what is the actual risk posed to those under 60 who wish to get vaccinated and take the AstraZeneca jab amid a sea of confusion?

On Monday, in response to surging Covid-19 case numbers associated with the highly-infectious Delta variant, Prime Minister Scott Morrison opened up the controversial vaccine to young Australians despite the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation's (ATAGI) recommendation for under 60s to take the Pfizer jab.

Yet the Queensland government triggered an unsavoury spat in the wake of the move, with Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young stressing she did not want young residents in her state taking the jab.

Her remarks prompted accusations of scaremongering over the rare blood clots emerging as a side effect of the vaccine.

Chief Health Officer of Queensland Doctor Jeannette Young speaks at Parliament House in Brisbane.
Chief Health Officer of Queensland DrJeannette Young has since defended her remarks about not giving AstraZeneca to young Queenslanders. Source: Getty

Senior federal minister Simon Birmingham accused the Queensland government of "helping anti-vaxxers".

Two people in Australia have died from thrombosis with thrombocytopenia (TTS) from more than 3.8 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine delivered. Taking these statistics, the likelihood of dying from the syndrome is about 1 in 2 million.

Australian Medical Association (AMA) President Dr Omar Khorshid said Mr Morrison's decision was about giving young Australians "an option".

"Whilst the AMA does support ATAGI’s advice and says you should get Pfizer, this change is something that will free the vaccine up. It is an approved vaccine for anybody over the age of 18 and Australians in conjunction with their GPs can make that decision."

For many young Australians desperate for a vaccine who are now frantically doing their own risk assessment, staunch supporters of the AstraZeneca jab have been highlighting statistics of other rare fatalities more likely in day-to-day life.

The AstraZeneca jab has proven controversial in Australia over its rare side-effects. Source: Getty
The AstraZeneca jab has proven controversial in Australia over its rare side-effects. Source: Getty

But those against the jab argue the current risk of death from Covid for young Australians is lower than that form the AstraZeneca – as argued by Dr Young.

Yet if the current surge in infections continued in NSW and other parts of the country, the AstraZeneca would appear "an excellent vaccine for everybody", Dr Khorshid said.

He said it was all about weighing up the risks, and individuals should go through that process with their doctors.

Epidemiologist compares AstraZeneca risk to other rare dangers

Writing for The Conversation last month, Associate Professor Hassan Vally, an epidemiologist at La Trobe University, said people struggled to weigh up risks when they were "extremely small".

"When our brains evolved we did not have to grapple with risks this small. So we struggle to make sense of them and perceive these events as being much more likely than they actually are," he said.

To help people better understand the risk in comparison to other dangers, he shared Australian Bureau of Statistics data about other risks in people's lives.

The risk of the AstraZeneca jab in comparison to other dangers. Source: The Conversation/ Flourish
The risk of the AstraZeneca jab in comparison to other dangers. Source: The Conversation/ Flourish

About as much chance of dying from a lightning strike

While he notes the comparison is not perfect as the risks are averaged across the whole population for a year, Dr Vally said it could prove "useful" to those making a decision.

"So the risk of dying from TTS after the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine is similar to the risk of being killed by lightning in a year in Australia," he said.

"And this pales in comparison when compared to other risks, such as the risk of dying in a car accident.

"Using visualisations like these is one way to effectively communicate just how small the risk of TTS is, and also put this risk into perspective by comparing it to other risks we incur in our lives.

"When you fully appreciate how small the risk of TTS is, the decision to have the AstraZeneca vaccine to protect yourself and others becomes a much easier one to make."

While GPs have seen an influx of young Australians coming forward for the AstraZeneca jab, ATAGI co-chair Christopher Blyth reminded the number of vaccines administered to under 40s should be "quite small".

More than 2600 Australians under 40 have received AstraZeneca since the prime minister's comments.

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