Why the AstraZeneca vaccine is still safe for Manitobans, according to health officials

A vial of some of the first 500,000 of the two million AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine doses that Canada has secured through a deal with the Serum Institute of India in partnership with Verity Pharma at a facility in Milton, Ont., on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio – POOL

On Monday the province announced it pushing the pause button on the AstraZeneca vaccine for anyone under the age of 55.

The reason for this was due to concerns coming out of Europe that saw a very rare side effect of blood clots developing with low levels of platelets.

The symptoms of the blood clots can look like a stroke or heart attack.

Dr. Joss Reimer, the medical lead for the Vaccine Implementation Task Force, wanted to further ease the minds of Manitobans on Wednesday and discussed why the vaccine is still safe.

She said the reports of blood clots are somewhere between one and every 100,000 doses to one in every 1,000,000 doses.

She also noted over-the-counter medication can also result in blood clots such as birth control pills.

"We use them anyway because pregnancy increases the risk of blood clots much more than birth control does," she said.

"We look at the risks associated with birth control, and we compare it to the benefits, whether those are symptom control or prevention of pregnancy, and we see that those benefits are clearly outweighing the risk of the blood clots for the vast majority of people."

Reimer said the risk associated with vaccines is much lower than medication that people use.

"We pay so close attention (to vaccines) and we monitor it so well, we're able to report on even the most rare side effects when it comes to vaccines, and that's what is giving us this moment to evaluate these rare encounters that we can't do the same way for any other prescription or over-the-counter medication or herbal product."

Reimer was also asked why those 55 and older are still being allowed to get the vaccine.

"Particularly for people who are over 55, the risk of COVID, even the risk of blood clots due to COVID, is much greater than the risk of this very rare blood clot with low platelets."

She said there are risks associated with everything in life and people must weigh the benefits for the activity, whether it is getting a surgery that could lead to infection or crossing the street and possibly being hit by a car.

"With vaccines, the risk-benefit ratio is overwhelmingly positive. We've seen the effect that COVID has had on our friends and our family members, we've seen what's happened in hospitals where the ICUs were full. And that's what we want to avoid."

If people have already booked an appointment for a vaccine that is AstraZeneca, Reimer is encouraging people to still attend and not to cancel.

"I don't want to see any Manitobans ending up in the hospital because of COVID. I don't want anyone to get a blood clot because of a COVID infection, and truly the AstraZeneca vaccine, even with this really rare complication that we're seeing, still offers that, that hope for Manitobans that we can protect ourselves and we can protect each other."

Reimer added that the risk of having a severe outcome related to COVID for those over the age of 55 is much greater than the risk for younger Manitobans.

"We don’t expect to see this rare side effect in Manitoba, but we certainly have already seen severe long-lasting outcomes, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, and we want to provide people with a way to protect themselves as quickly as possible."

She said the one thing that keeps her up at night about the AstraZeneca vaccine is communicating the situation to Manitobans as she doesn't want people to lose trust in the product.

GOOD NEWS REGARDING PFIZER

Reimer also addressed some news regarding the Pfizer vaccine that preliminary results are showing strong effectiveness for those as young as 12-years-old.

Reimer said she was very excited to see the news.

"What we need to wait for, however, in Canada, is for Health Canada to approve its use in people under 16. At the moment, Pfizer is only approved for people over 16, with the other vaccines only being approved for people over 18."

She said if Health Canada approves the vaccine for the younger population, the province will work on a rollout plan for younger Manitobans.