Clear messaging is needed to beat vaccine hesitancy

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The same fact-based approach that worked for the first year of the pandemic can work now, especially since the biggest reason people are worried about being vaccinated is out of fear for their safety. In the Herald survey, 50 per cent of people hesitating say they are worried about side effects.

Unfortunately, public confidence was shaken in April when the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation changed its advice and encouraged people under 50 to switch to vaccines other than AstraZeneca, such as Pfizer, because the young are thought to be more at risk of the blood clot syndrome. This came on top of early results in clinical trials, which found that AstraZeneca was less effective than Pfizer and other mRNA-style vaccines. In fact, more complete evidence recently shows that AstraZeneca produces immunity almost as strong as the others, also providing total protection from serious illness. It is not a second-class vaccine.

The government should focus on reassuring people about the very small risk of blood clots from the AstraZeneca vaccine, which most Australians are being offered. The problem is real but it is exceedingly rare. Out of 2.1 million people who have had AstraZeneca shots in Australia, so far there have been only two dozen cases and one tragic death. Doctors are getting better at identifying and treating cases when they occur.

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Medical professionals, in particular, have a role here. Former deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth has complained that a “hardcore rump of activist doctors” has undermined the health response by inflating the risks and problems. Doctors should explain the risks and benefits but in a measured way. They should make patients balance the small risk from vaccines against the enormous risk of COVID-19.

The government should also be selling the benefits that will come from reaching a high level of vaccination more boldly. Prime Minister Scott Morrison appeared to question whether vaccination would be enough to make it safe to open borders this week: “We don’t as of yet have considerable clinical evidence that tells us transmission is preventable.”

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Yet a British study found people who are vaccinated with one dose of AstraZeneca not only protect themselves but they are at least 67 per cent less likely to transmit the disease to others.

US President Joe Biden’s top health adviser Anthony Fauci said once you are vaccinated, “you become a dead end to the virus”.

The new vaccines offer Australia and the world a path out of this crisis. Governments, the health profession, the media and ordinary people must ensure that public trust is maintained.

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