‘People are confused’: Experts say demystifying side effects will boost vaccine uptake

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Being upfront about minor side effects may encourage more people to come forward for their COVID-19 vaccine, experts say, amid concerns that the chance of developing flu-like symptoms is hampering vaccine coverage and keeping some people away.

Roughly half of the people who receive a COVID-19 vaccine report some kind of adverse reaction, but only 1.2 per cent of people attend a doctor or emergency department as a result, a rolling survey by the National Centre for Immunisation and Surveillance’s AusVaxSafety group shows.

Registered nurse Rebecca DeJong received a COVID-19 vaccination at Townsville University Hospital last month.Credit:Ian Hitchcock/Queensland Health

“About one third of people are worried about mild side effects, having to see a doctor and miss work,” said Professor Margie Danchin, a vaccine researcher at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and lead author of a new report into vaccine uptake. “But having a sore arm, headache and fatigue in [the] first two days after being vaccinated are normal and it is a really great sign that the immune response is working well.”

“We need to demystify the experience of mild side effects and emphasise how common they are.”

Just over 6 per cent of people who received the Pfizer shot and 18 per cent of those who had AstraZeneca reported missing work, study or other routine duties for a short period, usually less than a day.

In a separate survey of more than 5000 people in February and March, about 75 per cent of people interviewed said they didn’t have enough information about vaccines, side effects and safety, underlining the urgent need to boost access and knowledge to information on when and how to book appointments.

The COVID Vaccine Preparedness Study reviewed the experiences of 5052 people in Victoria, including 3224 healthcare workers and 1828 members of the general public, in phases 1a and 1b.

More than 50 per cent said inconvenience was a barrier to getting a COVID-19 vaccine, with the most common concerns being knowledge of where to get the vaccine, wait times and understanding which vaccine priority group they were in. Almost 70 per cent said they preferred to get a COVID-19 vaccine at their GP.

“The sooner we open up the vaccine to all adults the better,” said Professor Danchin. “We need to help people get access to vaccines. People are confused if they are eligible, where to go and how to get it.”

In a survey of more than 5000 people about 75 per cent of people interviewed said they didn’t have enough information about vaccines, side effects and safety, underlining the urgent need to boost access and knowledge to information on when and how to book appointments.Credit:Getty

On Thursday night, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt confirmed 500,000 Australians are now fully vaccinated, or about 2 per cent of the total population.

“People want a choice, the sooner we have greater choice of vaccines the better, people really need a sense of control over decision-making,” said Professor Danchin.

Among healthcare workers, almost 70 per cent believed that COVID-19 vaccines should be made mandatory for doctors, nurses and others working in health and most said they would be more likely to vaccinate if required by their employer. Almost half thought getting a COVID-19 vaccine would be inconvenient, with the biggest concern being how to organise an appointment.

In the general public, surveyed people aged 70 years and above were 1.5 times more likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine, compared to participants aged between 18 and 69 years. Most people prefer to receive information from their healthcare provider and government websites and about 65 per cent of people said their most trusted sources of information on vaccines was from medical professionals and scientists.

About half of people are worried about serious side effects and about 55 per cent are worried about long term side effects.

According to the AusVaxSafety data, the most commonly reported adverse side effect in Pfizer recipients was a sore arm (30.5 per cent of people who received the shot) followed by fatigue (21.2 per cent) and a headache (15.7 per cent).

Among those who received the AstraZeneca vaccine, nearly half experienced fatigue (44.5 per cent), with headaches (37 per cent) and muscle and body aches (33 per cent) also common.

How to get your shot

  • Phase 1a and 1b: Health, quarantine and other high-risk workers, household contacts of quarantine or border workers, and people with an underlying medical condition or other significant disability can book a COVID-19 vaccine at a participating GP, Commonwealth respiratory clinic or NSW Health vaccination clinic using the Vaccine Eligibility Checker.
  • Ages 50+ Book an AstraZeneca shot at a participating GP, Commonwealth respiratory clinic or  NSW Health vaccination clinic using the Vaccine Eligibility Checker. 
  • Ages 40 to 49: Register interest in receiving the Pfizer shot at a NSW Health vaccination clinic through Service NSW. You will be contacted when an appointment at the Sydney Olympic Park or Blacktown clinic becomes available.
  • Under 40: If you do not qualify in phase 1a or 1b you are currently ineligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. People in this age group will receive the Pfizer shot.

“As with any adverse event reports, not all symptoms reported may be caused by the vaccine; they may be coincidental and due to other causes,” the website reporting the figures reads.

UNSW infectious disease social scientist Associate Professor Holly Seale said these figures should be more widely known and adding awareness of them was unlikely to scare them off booking in for an appointment.

“We know there will always be some kind of event post-vaccination, because that’s how our body reacts to what the vaccine is doing,” she said.

“So we need to help people to understand why those events happen … and most people will understand that [there is a reaction] because they had a flu shot or a tetanus shot in the past.”

Dr Seale said real-life stories of people who have received the vaccine should be included in messaging from governments.

“People will maybe need to take an afternoon off or feel a bit sluggish, but they will be back on their feet within a short amount of time,” she said.

Professor Danchin said people want to hear stories from their family, friends and colleagues and to be reassured that most people experience very mild side effects or none at all.

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