Declining the vaccine is far riskier than having it

July 01, 2021

​By Cécile​ Meier, Stuff Senior Journalist

Risk is complicated. Everyone views it differently based on their experiences and values. When it comes to assessing the risks of the Covid-19 vaccine, misinformation and disinformation obscure the picture.

After all, there is no Covid-19 circulating in New Zealand right now, so why take any risk in getting the vaccine? If border controls continue forever, then the risk of catching Covid-19 is minimal. But the borders can’t remain closed long term.

Once everyone has had a chance to get vaccinated, New Zealand will likely, gradually reopen its doors to the rest of the world. But Covid-19 won’t just disappear.

Not getting the vaccine puts you and your whānau and friends at risk of catching the virus, which can lead to severe illness, long-term Covid-19 health impacts and even death.

If you take 1000 unvaccinated people aged over 60, modelling* suggests 240 will catch Covid-19 if they have close contact with someone who is infected. Depending on age and previous medical conditions, 36 to 120 will be hospitalised due to severe infection, data from the Pfizer vaccine trials shows.

If those 1000 people were vaccinated, only 24 would catch Covid-19 and between 1 to 5 would be hospitalised.

If you take 1000 unvaccinated people aged under 60, 240 will catch Covid-19 (based on the same assumption as above). Depending on age and underlying conditions, 6 to 31 people will be hospitalised. If this group was vaccinated, only 10 would catch Covid, and one or none would be hospitalised.

The death rate from Covid-19 is more complicated to calculate, but this is what we know from multiple studies. Covid-19 is not very deadly for children and young adults, but they can spread the virus to vulnerable groups. For 15-year-olds, there is a single death in 35,000 cases. But it rises exponentially with age. By the time you turn 60, the fatality rate is about 1 in 150 cases.

And the long-term effects from Covid are becoming very clear – this is the ‘long Covid syndrome’ with 30 per cent of people experiencing symptoms for longer than 12 weeks.

By contrast, we know from the hundreds of millions of people who have been vaccinated so far that the risk of death from Covid-19 vaccines is almost nonexistent. The risk of a severe reaction is minuscule and the common side effects are mild and temporary.

If you vaccinate 1000 people, data suggests 0.005 of them will have a severe allergic reaction. This is 5 in a million cases. Vaccination centres are trained to spot and treat reactions. Ten to 100 people will experience side effects one to two days after getting the jab. They include pain, swelling or redness at the injection site, fatigue, headache, muscle aches, chills, joint pain, fever and nausea. This is common, and a sign your immune system is doing a great job and your body is learning to fight the virus.

Social media posts and flyers claiming alarming rates of deaths and serious injury caused by the vaccines distort unverified data from safety surveillance systems. When millions of people get vaccinated, yes some will happen to die or get sick in the days after it. Their death or illness is not necessarily caused by the vaccine.

The risk of declining the jab is very real. The risk of not being protected from Covid-19 is far higher than the tiny, almost insignificant risk of getting it.

Reporting disclosure statement: University of Wollongong epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz and Immunisation Advisory Centre (IMAC) director Dr Nikki Turner provided expert comment for this article. IMAC has a contract with the Ministry of Health to deliver education and training to the healthcare sector for COVID-19 vaccines. Clinical immunologist, allergist and immunopathologist Dr Maia Brewerton reviewed this article.

*Modelling was done by the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the University of Potsdam, Germany. The risk of catching Covid-19 changes over time and space, so researchers used data from global studies and research done in Norway and Spain to estimate one’s risk of catching the virus after a close contact with an infected person.

This story is part of a fact-checking project about the Covid-19 vaccine.