This week a second Australian death (a 52 year old woman from NSW)  was reported following COVID-19 vaccination with the AstraZeneca vaccine. This follows a 48 year old woman also from NSW who died in April. The probable cause of death was thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS), likely linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine. There have been 48 confirmed and probable TTS cases in Australia.  

As of June 10, there have been 5,487,670 Australians who have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, 142,808 in last 24 hours. Some 3.6 million of these have received the AstraZeneca vaccine.

This means that the current incidence rate in Australia of thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome following AstraZeneva vaccination is about 1 in 75,000 and the mortality rate is  a vanishingly low 1 in 1,800,000.

People are choosing to be vaccinated in a risk calculation to help avoid serious illness and possible death from COVID-19. In Australia, the current COVID-19 rate is  1,173 per million population and the death rate is 35 per million, both among the lowest in the world.

An interesting comparison with these mortality rates can be made with deaths in those undergoing anaesthesia for operations in hospital. We consent to undergoing anaesthesia because we have serious medical problems needing surgery or to have investigations like endoscopy  and colonoscopy looking for early signs of serious disease.

Anaesthetic risk is thoroughly monitored and researched. In Australia and New Zealand the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists (ANZCA) publicly reports on mortality associated with anaesthesia. The most recent Safety of Anaesthesia report was published this year and reports data for the years 2015-2017.

Across the three years, the rate of anaesthesia-related deaths per number of procedures per annum was 1 in every 57,125 anaesthetic events. In 85% of these deaths, chronic health conditions contributed to anaesthesia-related mortality. A total of 2,909 people died while under anaesthesia across the three years, of which 239 were considered by ANZCA to be wholly or in part due to anaesthesia.

So the risk of not surviving anaesthesia in Australia (1 in 57,125) is  31.5 times higher than the risk of dying from thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome after having the AstraZeneca vaccine (1 in 1,800,000).

I know several highly educated people in my age group (I’m 69) who are hesitating about getting the AstraZenica vaccine.  Yet I know some of them have not hesitated to have surgery when they needed it. And I know none of  them would even for a nanosecond contemplate having surgery without anaesthesia to avoid the very, very small risk of being killed by the anaesthetic.

If we are to get COVID-19 vaccination rates up to the 85%+ rates necessary to confer herd immunity, investment in research that helps us better understand the psychodynamics of the varied ways that people navigate risk taking with COVID will be money very well spent.