By: Steph Cantrill
*This article was updated on 23 July 2021 to reflect latest public health advice for AstraZeneca vaccination.
Please note that information given here is general and not to be taken as individual advice. Please discuss your health conditions, symptoms and concerns with your doctor.
In the mid-20th century, polio was a very real threat in Australia. Now, it’s mainly seen as a disease for the history books. This, of course, is thanks to the vaccine, which was first introduced here in 1956.
And now we have a new nasty virus, and a new protective vaccine. As with anything that’s new, people understandably have questions.
Why do we need a vaccine for COVID-19?
COVID-19 is currently infecting hundreds of thousands of people each day across the world. However, the numbers of community cases here in Australia are very low. So do we need a vaccine here?
The short answer, of course, is yes. Just like polio, COVID-19 anywhere is a threat everywhere – it’s only a plane ride, a canoe ride, or even a walk to the local café away. And, while we can be grateful that our current infection rates are very low, we really want to keep it that way.
COVID-19 is a mild illness for many people (as was polio, although we couldn’t predict who might be more seriously affected). But some people are particularly vulnerable to serious illness or even death from COVID-19. We want to do what we can to protect them.
Many polio survivors, for example, are now older and therefore in a higher-risk category for serious illness from COVID-19. Those with breathing problems may also be at a higher risk.
Should I get the vaccine?
While a lot polio survivors are eager to get their COVID-19 vaccine – or have already had it – we are getting quite a few questions about whether it’s safe.
We’ll start by saying we don’t have all the answers yet, but we’ll share what we know. The vaccine is considered safe. Local redness and soreness for a couple of days is a common side-effect. Serious adverse events are very rare – e.g., anaphylaxis after the Pfizer vaccine impacts around 1 in 100,000 cases, and dangerous clotting after the AstraZeneca vaccine is also about 1 in 100,000.
You can also read our position statement on this topic.
Which vaccine type would I get?
As you are no doubt aware, there are a number of versions of the COVID-19 vaccine. A statement from Paul Kelly, Australian Government Chief Medical Officer, contains the following information:
- The Pfizer vaccine is the preferred vaccine for adults under 50 years old, due to a slightly increased risk of blood clotting in this age group with the AstraZeneca vaccine
- The AstraZeneca vaccine is now available to all adults aged 60 plus*
- (There is no vaccine currently available for children)
I have post-polio symptoms. Am I at a higher risk for side-effects?
Please be aware that the COVID-19 vaccine is very new, and we don’t have all the answers. It is important that you discuss your concerns, individual medical history and current medications with your doctor.
According to the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), people who have had a severe allergic (anaphylactic) reaction to a first dose of COVID vaccine should not receive a second. And those who have previously had an anaphylactic reaction to one of the vaccine’s components should not be given the COVID vaccine at all.
Precaution should be used for people with certain other conditions, including:
- Mast cell disorders
- Bleeding disorders
- Prior anaphylactic reaction to another vaccine
- Non-anaphylactic allergic reactions to a component of the COVID-19 vaccine, or to the first dose
There are some common side-effects from both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, including:
- Arm pain
- Muscle pain
- Fever and chills
We have spoken to some polio survivors who have had side-effects after their first dose, including arm pain, fever, fatigue, and joint pain with muscle weakness. We have also heard from others who had no reaction at all. At the time of writing (May 2021), we cannot find evidence of any precaution against the vaccine specifically for people who have had polio.
What about blood clots or other serious side-effects?
Serious side-effects are rare. Thrombosis with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome (TTS) is a blood clotting disorder that has developed after the AstraZeneca vaccine in very rare cases. There are no specific risk factors identified, according to information from the Department of Health.
While some types of blood clots are more common for people who are not able to move around much, the blood clotting disease resulting from the COVID vaccine isn’t related to how mobile you are. If you are taking anticoagulants, you may be at an even lower risk than the general population of developing clots.
If you have had a blood clotting disorder before, speak to your doctor before taking the vaccine – they may recommend taking a different type.
Who should I talk to?
If you have any concerns at all about the vaccine, you should start by speaking to your GP.
If you have specific issues or symptoms, you should speak to a specialist who deals with that area. For example, if you have chronic breathing problems, it may help to speak to your respiratory specialist.
For further information, see the Australian Government Department of Health, the CDC resources, and Polio Australia’s Position Paper on COVID-19 vaccination.
–Thanks to Professor Robert Booy for reviewing the contents of this paper. Professor Booy is a board member and past chair of the Immunisation Coalition, and is a member of Polio Australia’s Clinical Advisory Group.