As someone with a complex autoimmune history, I consulted widely before making my Covid vaccine decision. I read all the research I could find, I spoke to all my specialists. I chose to have the AstraZeneca vaccine on the best medical advice and research available to me. Twenty-four hours later, I was in ambulance.
Back in 2012, I had a rare autoimmune disease called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which caused my immune system to shred my nervous system. Years later I have most of my arm and leg function back and only the odd bout of nerve pain. I’m considered one of the lucky ones. I didn’t die. But with such a twitchy immune system, vaccines are risky for me.
Covid has presented me, and people like me who have autoimmune disease, with a serious conundrum. We are more likely to die from the virus, and if we don’t, we’re at heightened risk of becoming one of the seriously debilitated Covid “long haulers”. But it’s not so simple as getting vaccinated.
I’m not meant to have an annual flu vaccine, let alone a brand-new type of vaccines. People like me can’t know how any of the Covid vaccines will affect us – the data simply isn’t there yet.
Around the country, people who can’t or aren’t meant to vaccinate are presented with three options: don’t vaccinate and likely die or become profoundly ill should we contract Covid, take a new technology such as mRNA with limited understanding of its impact on the immune system, or take the AstraZeneca vaccine. Whichever option you choose, there is a risk of death, debilitating pain or a worsening of your underlying condition.
I am one of the tiny handful of the millions of vaccinated people who have had, or will have, an extreme adverse reaction to AstraZeneca. For me, the reaction wasn’t blood clots. The reaction was full-body small nerve fibre neuropathy. Two weeks after the vaccine, I’m out of hospital and back at work. My wounds will heal but it may take many months.
Why did I get vaccinated as someone for whom vaccines are risky? The short answer is because of vaccine hesitancy. Well, more accurately, because of you – and the government’s poor rollout, and my desire to live a normal life.
As I write this, only 1.9% of the Australian population is fully vaccinated, just 14% have had one dose. In part, these rates are low because of the governments poorly executed rollout of the vaccine program. Yet, the Guardian’s Essential Poll found that fewer than 50% of over 50s are willing to get AstraZeneca for fear of blood clots.
Blood clots are scary, I understand this. I also had to weigh up the risk of blood clots when I chose AstraZeneca. Yet the risks are low. And we now know how to detect the disorder through checking for platelet counts, and how to treat it.
Every drug you take has risks. Most of them are far greater than AstraZeneca. That anti-inflammatory you pop when you’ve got an injury – 30-50% higher risk you’ll have a cardiac arrest according to a study, depending on the brand and how much you take. The contraceptive pill carries a risk of blood clots in a range of around 1 per 2,500 people. Plain old paracetamol is the leading cause of acute liver failure in the western world.
While I don’t regret getting AstraZeneca, my story highlights the predicament of immunocompromised Australians like me for whom vaccines carry an inherent heightened risk but who are being forced to accept that risk because herd immunity feels impossibly far away.
Partially protected from Covid, I now sit waiting for my invisible wounds to knit and my doctors to decide if I can ever have a second dose of a different vaccine. I’m frightened of getting a second dose. I’m also frightened that if I don’t, I’ll never see my overseas family. I’ll never feel completely safe leaving my home, because we have such low vaccination rates.
My message to every healthy person who is scared of AstraZeneca is simple: Get a vaccine. Get any vaccine. Because that vaccine is less risky than Covid and the myriad of other drugs and choices you make every day. Because if you don’t get a vaccine, people like me have no choice but to make very difficult decisions.