by Bella Wallersteiner
Vaccine hesitancy is on the rise among young people after the recent announcement by the Government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) that healthy 18 to 29-year-olds should be given alternative jabs to the AstraZeneca after reports that the vaccine may, in very rare cases, lead to cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST). In layman’s terms, this is a potentially fatal clot to a vein which drains blood from the brain. The European Medicines Agency (EMA), the European Union’s regulator, concluded that “unusual blood clots with low blood platelets should be listed as very rare side effects” of the AstraZeneca vaccine. A growing number of countries including Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain have stopped giving the AstraZeneca vaccine to anyone under the age of 60. The UK regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MRHA), has suspended medical trials which involved giving jabs to children.
While the chance of developing a blood-clot is still quite low – currently estimated at one in 100,000 – we should have a conversation nevertheless about the risk-benefit ratio of requiring healthy young adults to be injected with a vaccine that in rare cases triggers the immune system to produce antibodies which activate platelets and causes blood clots. By April 11th European regulators had received reports of 222 cases in the UK and the European Economic Area (the EU with Iceland, Norway, and Liechtenstein), with the largest cohort of blood clots occurring in women under the age of 65. The reason the risks are more finely balanced for young people is not because they’re more at risk of this adverse effect; rather, it’s because they’re less at risk of dying from COVID-19. They have less to gain from getting vaccinated than older generations.
As the UK successfully rolls out the vaccine to older people, offering the AstraZeneca to people in their mid-forties from the middle of April, there are now fears that a large swathe of young people might become vaccine dissenters: the risk of healthy under-30s becoming seriously ill from Covid is tiny and they usually shake off new variants just as easily. The rise in the number of young people infected with coronavirus last winter was not accompanied by a significant increase in hospitalisations. Someone my age, 25-years-old, is 250 times less likely to die from COVID-19 than an 85-year-old.
While there is nothing to link the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to the health problems associated with the AstraZenica vaccine, the bland reassurances offered by the Government are viewed with scepticism. Are the risks of a vaccine-related blood clot really no greater than for those on a long-haul flight? Do we want to hear that the chances of dying from the a Covid jab are no greater than being killed in a skydiving jump, failing to regain consciousness after a general anaesthetic or a young woman on the pill developing a blood clot? Will jabs really protect granny and grandpa, avoid the risk of Long Covid and bring instant gratification in the form of pubs and festivals?
Instead of explaining the risks and benefits, the Government’s response to vaccine hesitancy among younger age groups has been to threaten vaccine passports or highlight the risks of Long Covid. Bullying and coercion rarely work as government policy and we should learn from successful health campaigns, such as the eradication of smallpox, that widespread immunisation can only be achieved with everyone working together to fight a global threat. Herd immunity happens when the greater number of the population is resistant to an infection and the R transmission number becomes negligible. Young people know that they are at low risk of serious harm from coronavirus, but they’re also aware that they are just as likely to transmit COVID-19 as older people.
After a year in which many young people have lost their jobs, missed out great chunks of the curriculum in schools and universities and were forbidden from seeing their friends, coercing them into taking the jab is a perverse strategy. Altruistic young people worked in food banks, collected medicine and went shopping for elderly neighbours who were shielding or, inspired by the example of Captain Tom Moore, raised funds for the NHS. Instead of receiving praise for demonstrating resilience and kindness, young people are now being maligned for showing ambivalence in coming forward to take a vaccine which may do them harm. More needs to be done to convince them that the vaccine is safe and effective and that the eradication of COVID-19 requires all citizens to join together in an act of solidarity.
Once vaccines for under-30s get the green light, the Government needs to come up with a new social contract for young people. What is the duty of a young person to society? Does a young adult have a moral obligation to protect an older one? The message should be that society is the glue which binds us together in a moral compact which transcends self-interest. By getting the vaccine you are helping the community at large. Young people should want to take the vaccine because they have decided that it is the right thing to do for their own health and for the safety of others. They should not be bullied into taking the vaccine out of fear of becoming second-class citizens or because they will be denied the pleasures of techno, house and trance dance music in clubs. The Government must treat young people like grown-ups and be prepared to have an adult conversation with them. The Prime Minister, who is such an effective communicator, particularly when addressing young people, should deliver a special broadcast specifically targeting UK citizens under 30 who have given up so much over the last year. He should thank them for their solidarity and support and exhort them to make one final collective effort to beat COVID-19 by having the vaccine. If this doesn’t happen, the whole project to eradicate the scourge of coronavirus could stumble at the last fence.
Bella Wallersteiner is a Senior Parliamentary Assistant.