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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 11°C

Debunked: A claim which describes 'major concerns' about the AstraZeneca vaccine is misleading

The claim has been shared on Facebook.

For debunks

A CLAIM THAT people who received the AstraZeneca vaccine are now more likely to suffer a stroke has been shared over a hundred times on social media.

The claim relies on an article published by The Liberal in May, which claimed that “new evidence” had emerged that suggested that getting the jab meant that people “might now be at risk of suffering a stroke”.

The article described how three people had suffered strokes within 30 days of having the AstraZeneca vaccine, one of whom subsequently died. 

It states that there is now “major concern” about the jab and claimed that Ireland continues to administer the vaccine “without any apparent concerns or misgivings”. 

However, health concerns about the AstraZeneca vaccine are minuscule and Ireland has taken a number of precautions about administering it to people who may suffer adverse effects from it.

Although there were reports of people who suffered strokes around the time The Liberal’s piece was published, the article does not refer to any scientific evidence which suggests that a person is at a higher risk of stroke after taking the vaccine.

This is not to say there is no risk: links between strokes and the jab were confirmed by the British Heart Foundation (BHF), among others.

However, the foundation says there have been “a very small number of reports” of adults under the age of 45 who suffered a stroke within a month of having the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Crucially, the BHF notes that it is not known whether these strokes were caused by the vaccine.

“Even if a link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and stroke is proven, it’s important to remember that the chance of having a stroke due to the vaccine is extremely low, and that stroke is more common in people who get Covid-19,” the foundation says.

In a Sky News article detailing the cases of the three people who suffered strokes, a team from University College London (UCL) Hospital’s NHS Foundation Trust stressed the risks of suffering a stroke due to the AstraZeneca vaccine are small, and the the risk of someone having a stroke is actually greater if they contract Covid-19. 

Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency chief executive Dr June Raine told Sky: “No effective medicine or vaccine is without risk.”

“Our advice remains that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks in the majority of people.”

Irish experts issued similar guidance earlier this year, when concerns about the risk of stroke from AstraZeneca first arose.

On 19 March, Professor Joe Harbison, who is clinical lead of the Irish National Audit of Stroke, told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland how a much higher percentage of people who caught Covid-19 developed stroke symptoms than those who were given AstraZeneca.

He explained that one to two per cent of people hospitalised with Covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic in Ireland suffered a stroke, compared with a “less than a one in a million chance” of a person developing a problem due to the vaccine.

Risk of clotting

This is not to say there weren’t any concerns about AstraZeneca, or that Ireland has administered the vaccine “without misgivings”. 

In March, Ireland joined a number of EU countries by temporarily suspending the use of the vaccine, amid concerns about a small number of blood-clotting incidents among those who had received the jab. 

In total, 86 cases of potential blood clotting were detected after around 25 million people across Europe had received the vaccine.

But in April, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) conducted a review of the jab and concluded that the benefits of the vaccine outweighed the risks, and that the unusual blood clots should be listed as a very rare side effect of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

This led to Ireland suspending the use of the vaccine for anyone under the age of 60 following a recommendation from the National immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC).

NIAC then recommended that AstraZeneca should not be given to people under 50 in Ireland. This subsequently reduced to 40 in May.

At the time, NIAC chair Professor Karina Butler outlined that someone aged 60-64 was 85 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than to have any clotting event from the vaccine.

People aged 55-59 were 48 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than get a blood clot, while among the 20-30 age group, the risk of dying from Covid was twice as likely, than to develop any clotting event related to the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

However, NIAC’s advice remained to limit the use of AstraZeneca to older sections of the population, because other vaccines which did not present the same (minimal) risk to younger people were available. 

This advice has changed in recent weeks, following the emergence of the Delta variant, now the most dominant in Ireland.

NIAC’s advice now allow people under 40 be given the jab, in order to ensure that the highest number of people are protected as soon as possible. 

Administering the vaccine to the younger age cohort still carries a small risk, but the risks involved in contracting the Delta variant – and developing severe illness or long Covid – are much greater. 

Over 750 pharmacies began vaccinating the 18-34 age group on Monday, while patients can also register to have the AstraZeneca vaccine at a vaccination centre from 12 July.

But this is strictly on an opt-in basis: those who are still concerned about the AstraZeneca vaccine can avail of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or an mRNA vaccine from Pfizer or Moderna instead.

And even despite these concerns, we still know that all Covid-19 vaccines – including AstraZeneca – have been overwhelmingly safe to use. 

All of the vaccines authorised by the European Medicines Agency have reduced severe infection, hospitalisation and death in Covid-19 patients who have received them.

More than half of the adult population of Ireland – comprising millions of people – have now been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, with hundreds of thousands more having received a first dose.

No link between a Covid-19 vaccine and any case of severe illness or death has been established in any individual in Ireland. It is misleading to say there are “major concerns” about the AstraZeneca vaccine or any other jab available here.

Contains reporting from previous FactChecks by Stephen McDermott.

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