With people under the age of 40 now being told they’re able to get the AstraZeneca vaccine, it’s hard to decipher what’s right and wrong with immunisation advice. Here’s what you need to know about where medical practitioners stand despite mixed political messaging that’s come out this week. (Pictured: Prime Minister Scott Morrison with a vial of AstraZeneca. Image source: ABC via AAP)

By Dani Bozoski | @danibozoski

On Monday June 28, following an emergency national cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Scott Morrison released a statement detailing new indemnity arrangements and age recommendations regarding COVID-19 vaccinations.

The indemnity scheme entails that should a patient under 60 adversely react to the vaccine, providers cannot be sued but patients can still receive compensation.

When asked if these arrangements meant that people under the age of 40 would now be able to freely be vaccinated with AstraZeneca, the Prime Minister confirmed they could.

“Well, if they wish to go and speak to their doctor and have access to the AstraZeneca vaccine, they can do so… the answer is yes, they can go and do that” he said.

The response came on the heels of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) increasingthe recommended age for the vaccine to 60, earlier in June.

It was later revealed that the national cabinet had not agreed to this statement, and state and territory leaders only found out through watching the press conference itself.

Each state has its own advice and regulations regarding vaccination procedures and South Australian Chief Public Health Officer, Nicola Spurrier, insists that it is a decision to be made individually.

Queensland Chief Health Officer, Dr Jeanette Young, is adamant in discouraging younger people from “putting their health on the line [by] getting a vaccine that could possibly harm them”.

The gap between the advice of both health and political officials has left Australians observing a confusing back and forth.

However, in a follow up press conference on Friday July 2, Morrison announced the four-step plan that should see all willing Australians vaccinated by the end of this year.

He then defended his previous statement, saying he completely “refuses the assertion” he should regret anything said on Monday.

So, one big question hangs in the air: is this a clever strategy, or just a big blunder?

The ATAGI still stands by their recommendations despite Monday’s announcement, and head of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) Dr Omar Khorshid also backs previous advice.

“[The AMA] were given no notice that the PM would encourage anyone under 60 to get the AstraZeneca vaccine… the AMA is still backing official advice from the ATAGI,” he said.  

The confusion and lack of anticipation is replicated on a local scale, with vaccine providers no more prepared than anyone else.

Adelaide-based general practitioner Sarah* believes Monday’s announcement should not change the way we look at vaccinating the population.

She said GPs are having to “keep the press conferences up on TV in the office and get new information from there”.

“Don’t get too excited or stressed, most people under 40 are still not eligible for vaccination anyway,” she said.

“If you are confused on whether to get the jab, first take the eligibility checker and then just have a chat with your local GP… but I really think it’s worth it just to wait for Pfizer”.

University of South Australia’s Dr Gerel Dorj also believes younger Australians should wait it out.

“The rate of thrombosis (blood clotting) and thrombocytopenia symptom (TTS) following the COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine was higher in those under 50 years than the older counterparts,” she said.

“I think that those who are under the age of 40 should withhold their wish to get this vaccination unless they are in the priority groups… however those who had their first dose of AZ and didn’t get any side effects should complete their second dose”.

(Image source: ATAGI via ABC)

Statistically speaking, the chance of experiencing TTS is extremely low (see table below) and South Australia has so far managed to avoid any major breakouts from the latest Delta variant clusters.

The federal government’s new four-step plan relies on high levels of vaccination, so perhaps the Prime Minister was simply attempting to stir up some jab excitement before it was announced.

Stir up excitement it did, with the ABC reporting that Australia had its third-highest number of vaccines administered in a single day in the two days following the initial Monday announcement.

In summary, there is no need to stress: vaccine circumstances on an individual level haven’t changed.

Despite the Prime Minister’s announcement, mass consensus among medical professionals remains that people under 40 should simply wait for Pfizer rollouts to begin later this year and try their best to keep updated.

Yet, both medical and political officials seem to agree that if you want to be vaccinated this year, you probably will be.

You can check your eligibility to become vaccinated against COVID-19 on the Department of Health’s website, which has been updated since the recent announcement to include a question regarding whether you would like to consider AstraZeneca and links to further information.

If you would prefer to wait for Pfizer, once you’ve completed the eligibility checker, you can request to be notified when you are able to receive the vaccine.

*Names of people have been changed or omitted for privacy reasons.