As the advice around the vaccine continues to evolve in Australia, Body+Soul talks to the experts and gets answers to your most commonly asked questions.
What’s going on with the AstraZeneca vaccine?
The Government has changed its recommendation on the AstraZeneca vaccine due to a potential but serious side effect of blood clotting. The advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) says that for anyone under 50, the Pfizer vaccine is now the preferred option.
People aged 50 and over are still being advised to have the AstraZeneca vaccine – which forms the bulk of Australia’s vaccine supply – due to their risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19. But also at least one state government (NSW) has suspended its use across all age groups. Investigations into the link between the vaccine and rare cases of blood clotting are ongoing, and the Government continues to consult with the World Health Organization and other regulatory bodies overseas.
“[The ATAGI] will be closely monitoring the situation regarding clots and the COVID-19 vaccine,” GP Dr Sam Hay tells Body+Soul. “If there’s evidence to be found, they’ll find it, and advise us accordingly.”
Like what you see? Sign up to our bodyandsoul.com.au newsletter to read more stories like this.
What qualifies a person to get the vaccine early?
“Australia’s vaccine strategy is based on ensuring that those most at risk of either exposure to COVID-19 or to severe symptoms from infection receive their vaccines first,” Dr Chris Moy, vice president of the Australian Medical Association, tells Body+Soul.
This is why the rollout has been divided into phases, starting with healthcare workers at locations with a higher risk of exposure and transmission, quarantine-facility staff, and residents and staff of aged- care and disability-care facilities.
“We’re now in phase 1b, where older Australians, all other doctors and healthcare workers, and people with health conditions which put them at greater risk will receive their vaccine,” Moy says. He advises discussing your circumstances and health concerns with your GP, and visiting covid-vaccine.healthdirect.gov.au to find out when you’ll be eligible.
I’m 25 and healthy. Do I really need the vaccine?
Hay says it’s important that as many Australians as possible get vaccinated, irrespective of their age and health. “There are two major purposes for vaccinating: the first is to give the individual immunity so that if they come across the illness, they’ll be able to fight it better, and it will therefore stop them from going to hospital, which takes away that burden on the health system,” Hay says. “The second is to develop herd immunity, where you’re protecting a larger proportion of the population, so it’s much harder for an illness to penetrate.”
How can I help my body before and after the vaccination?
Naturopath and nutritionist Madeline Calfas recommends getting plenty of rest, reducing stress, and eating a healthy diet to ensure your body is in the best shape to process the vaccine.
“Studies have also shown that people averaging less than six hours sleep a night were over 10 times less likely to mount antibody responses to vaccines,” she says. “Sleeping after a vaccine can help to increase the number of antigen-specific T cells, which means your response is stronger.” Calfas says supplements can also give your immune system a boost.
“Taking zinc, and vitamins A, D and E for antioxidant support will help your immune system develop its response to the vaccine,” she tells Body+Soul. “Vitamin D helps to reduce inflammation and decrease your susceptibility to infection.
It also activates killer T cells, which are the cells responsible for detecting and destroying foreign pathogens [such as viruses].” Finally, she recommends cutting back on alcohol. “Your liver plays a major role in drug metabolism, so preparing pre-vaccination will not only help your immune response, but can also improve the effectiveness of the vaccine,” she explains. “Also ensure you’re well hydrated to help your liver do its job.”
How will I be “certified” as vaccinated? Will I get a card?
According to a spokesperson for the Australian Government Department of Health: “All COVID-19 immunisations will be recorded on the Australian immunisation register [where the] immunisation history statement (IHS) displays all immunisations on record for an individual.” View your IHS online via myGov or the Medicare Express Plus app; healthcare providers can also access a patient’s record on their behalf.
Does it hurt? Will I experience any side effects?
Sydney-based Body+Soul reader Robert Player, 66, suffers from chronic asthma and received the AstraZeneca vaccine last week. He describes the pain as minimal, similar to a flu shot. However, he did experience minor side effects roughly 10 hours later. “I woke up with a bad headache, fever and chills, and just felt unwell,” he tells Body+Soul. “It slowly reduced, but I did feel lethargic. I was feeling back to normal in 48 hours.”
The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) – Australia’s regulatory body for medicines – says side effects may vary from person to person, but should only last for a day or two at most.
The vaccine feels rushed. Have shortcuts been taken to get it approved for use?
“There have been no shortcuts – just no wasted time, as some processes were performed concurrently rather than consecutively,” Dr Vanessa Bryant, laboratory head of the immunology division at the WEHI medical research institute in Melbourne, tells Body+Soul.
“Vaccines were already in production as the safety trials were underway, so they were ready to move to the next phase without delay.” As the whole world stands to benefit from the vaccine, the immense funding support and number of community volunteers also helped to speed up the processes.
As Bryant explains, “Clinical trials establish safety first, then look at symptomatic COVID-19 [symptoms confirmed with diagnostic testing]. In fact, we can have extra confidence from the larger number of volunteers that participated in these trials compared to the usual number.”
Before vaccines are approved for use in Australia, they’re thoroughly evaluated by the TGA, with rigorous assessment of their safety, quality and effectiveness.
Can pregnant or breastfeeding women have the vaccine? And what are the effects on fertility? Will there be research into this?
While clinical trials for medicines don’t usually include pregnant or breastfeeding women, Queensland-based obstetrician and gynaecologist Dr Brad Robinson tells Body+Soul: “There’s no evidence that the vaccine results in an increased risk of miscarriage or birth malformation.”
The COVID-19 vaccines aren’t being routinely recommended if you’re already pregnant, but you should ask your health professional for advice in regards to your medical history. In terms of breastfeeding,
Robinson says it can have an instant protective effect on a baby. “A woman who receives the vaccine will commence producing antibodies against the virus. If [she] is breastfeeding, she will transfer this immune-system bounty via her breastmilk to the baby, [which] will offer the baby some ‘passive’ protection against the virus.”
Regarding fertility, Robinson says: “There’s no suggestion the vaccines would have, or do have, any effect on reproductive capacity. Having said that, all medical outcomes around this virus and its vaccines will be, appropriately, under ongoing, continual and intense scrutiny.”
How should the Government deal with the fear and conspiracy theories around the vaccine?
Tim Burrowes, the founder of media and marketing news website Mumbrella, tells Body+Soul he believes the Government needs to focus on “making sure that the communications come through credible people – with more doctors at podiums and fewer politicians doing something that could be perceived as political photo calls.
The more it can be depoliticised, the more successful I suspect it would be.”
What happens after the vaccine rollout and when can we expect life to go back to normal?
The Department of Health had planned to have “every adult living in Australia offered a vaccine by the end of October 2021”. The evolving advice about the AstraZeneca vaccine, and the fact it was Australia’s main vaccine supply, make it hard to gauge how delayed this timeline will be. However, the Government recently announced it has secured 20 million more doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which will be available towards the end of the year.
Which vaccines are available in Australia, can I choose which one I get, and what’s the difference between them?
The TGA approved the use of the AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines in Australia, COVID-19 vaccine but the AstraZeneca vaccine is being investigated due to several cases worldwide of blood clotting. For the most up-to-date advice, visit health.gov.au.
Where can I access the vaccine, and do we all get it for free?
The vaccine is free for all Australian citizens, permanent residents, and most visa-holders. Speak to your doctor about whether you can receive it at a GP clinic or at a state health vaccination clinic.
How many doses of the vaccine will I need? For maximum protection, you require two doses of the same vaccine.
Is it safe for children?
The Pfizer vaccine is only approved for ages 16 and older.
Can I have it if I’m immunocompromised or have allergies?
Absolutely – in fact, AMA Vice President Dr Chris Moy strongly recommends getting vaccinated if you are immunocompromised, but, “If you have allergies or a history of anaphylaxis, you should discuss this with your GP or vaccine administrator first.”
Could the vaccine react with other medications I’m taking?
While Moy says this is unlikely, he also says that we can’t be absolutely certain yet. “While vaccines and medications can sometimes affect each other, these interactions don’t usually cause big problems. Both the Pfizer vaccine and AstraZeneca vaccine were tested on thousands of people around the world before they were approved, with people taking a variety of medications included.”
Does the vaccine change your DNA and genetic makeup?
No – neither the Pfizer nor the AstraZeneca vaccines will change your DNA in any way. Dr Vanessa Bryant, laboratory head of the immunology division at WEHI medical research institute in Melbourne tells Body+Soul, “The mRNA (messenger ribonucleic acid) in the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is a coded set of instructions that is delivered to our cells so they can make the (non-infectious) small spike protein marker that triggers our immune system to make protective responses.”
“It is quickly destroyed and does not persist in our cells or our bloodstream.” By comparison she says that, “The adenovirus used in the AstraZeneca COVID-19 works by delivering genetic instructions of the non-infectious spike protein into our cells, again allowing our cells to produce the spike protein, which triggers our immune response to the virus to protect us if we encounter it in future. The adenovirus cannot reproduce in humans and is also quickly destroyed by the body’s normal processes.”
Are the people administering the vaccines in Australia all trained nurses?
A spokesperson for the Australian Government Department of Health tells Body+Soul that while the specific requirements vary between states and territories, all “authorised COVID-19 vaccination providers must complete mandatory vaccination training prior to administering any vaccines, to ensure they are competent in the safe management and administration of COVID-19 vaccines.”
Do I need the vaccine if I’ve already had the COVID-19 virus?
Even if you’ve had COVID-19, you should still be vaccinated. “There is still research being done into our immune responses after vaccination for both people who have recovered from COVID and those that have never had it,” Bryant says.
“If you have had COVID-19, a vaccine will likely boost your immune responses further, and it is important for everyone to receive both doses of the vaccine for maximum protection.”
How do you see this playing out in the court of public opinion?
Tim Burrowes, the founder of media and marketing news website Mumbrella tells Body+Soul that while he feels that thus far, the “public has been pretty forgiving about the relatively slow rollout in Australia,” there could be “a moment when people wake up [to the fact] that a lot of the advanced democracies in the world have got a lot further than us.”
“So I wonder whether there will come a moment when that becomes the major communications challenge for the government – with people asking, “Why aren’t we making as good progress?”
When you’re not careful, you generate cynicism in the public about what it looks like when there are more photo calls about relatively small batches of vaccines arriving, than there are about the systems being in place.”
Can you have both the COVID-19 and flu vaccine at the same time?
Dr Sam Hay explains that it’s vital that you receive your influenza vaccine this year, in addition to your COVID-19 shot.
“They’re different classes, which means that the vaccine for one is not going to protect you against the other,” he tells Body+Soul. “We’re recommending that there are two weeks separation between getting your COVID and flu shot.”
Will people coming from overseas need to have the vaccine if they want to visit Australia going forward?
While no formal decision has been made, a spokesperson for the Australian Government Department of Health tells Body+Soul that “the Government’s expectation would be that whilst COVID-19 continues to pose a significant threat to public health globally and within Australia, people coming to Australia will be required to undertake appropriate risk mitigations, which may include quarantine or vaccination, to minimise the risk to the community.”
They explain that deciding if and when to reopen our borders safely, “will be a step-by-step process, underpinned by the latest medical advice and based on robust risk assessments.” And irrespective of vaccination, it looks like quarantine isn’t going anywhere for the time being.
“Australia will require some form of quarantine in the near term even if proof of vaccination is provided. A vaccination is not viewed as a panacea or a complete substitute for other public health interventions; it is viewed as supplementary to other measures.”
For further information concerning who is presently able travel to Australia, including quarantine-free flights from New Zealand, and related requirements, please refer to the Department of Home Affairs website