Kathriona Devereux: Covid and cars are much more deadly than life-saving jabs

In her weekly column Kathriona Devereux looks at the risks versus benefits of taking a Covid vaccine.
Kathriona Devereux: Covid and cars are much more deadly than life-saving jabs

A vial of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, which has been associated with a very small risk of blood clotting.

IF you play the Lotto, your chance of winning is 1 in 10,737,573.

If you fork out €2.50 to play the Euromillions, your chance of winning is 1 in almost 140 million.

More than 1.39 million people played National Lottery games in Ireland on a regular basis in 2019, so presumably lots of people are happy with those odds, or get enough pleasure in daydreaming about potential life-changing amounts of money that they are willing to invest.

As the National Lottery slogan says “it could be you” and about 39% of adults in Ireland agree.

I don’t play the Lotto because I don’t get any fun out of losing money. I once watched a presumably very rich woman lose enormous amounts of money at a roulette table at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas and I found it horrifying.

I was a transfixed bystander, mouth gaping, as play after play she placed piles of chips on particular numbers. One unsuccessful swirl of the roulette wheel after another the croupier swept the woman’s chips into a hole in the corner of the table.

To my inexpert eye, the odds seemed stacked against her and it didn’t look like much fun to lose that much money, but maybe she was having a blast, hoping for the small 2% chance the ball would land on her number and she’d win 35 times her bet.

Lately, we have been hearing a lot about risk versus benefits, percentages, and one in a million numbers of rare blood-clotting side-effects in people who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) investigated 222 cases of rare thrombosis events, 18 of which were sadly fatal. Some 34 million people have received the vaccine across the UK and Europe, and the EMA concluded that the vaccine’s proven efficacy in preventing hospitalisation and death from Covid-19 outweighs the extremely small likelihood of developing a rare blood clot.

However, in the light of its findings, the EMA said “patients should be aware of the remote possibility of such syndromes, and if symptoms suggestive of clotting problems occur, patients should seek immediate medical attention and inform healthcare professionals of their recent vaccination”.

This development has understandably caused concern and worry for people who are due, or are hoping, to be vaccinated soon.

If you subscribe to the vanishingly small possibility of winning the Lotto and believe “it could be you”, then it’s very easy to think, even though the risk of a rare blood cot is very small “it could be me”.

Mathematicians at Cambridge University have helped put some perspective on the risk of serious harm due to vaccine side-effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

The Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication calculated that a 25-year-old has an 11 in 1 million chance of a serious side-effect caused by the vaccine. However, 25- year-olds have double the risk of dying from coronavirus, at 23 in 1 million, and three times more risk of dying in a road accident, at 38 in 1 million.

People aged 55 have a 4 in 1 million chance of a serious side effect caused by the vaccine, but have an 800 in 1 million chance of dying from coronavirus. Their risk of dying in a road accident is 23 in 1 million.

Those numbers may be a bit bamboozling, but provide some comfort to me. I have a greater risk of dying in a road accident than I do of experiencing serious harm from a vaccine side effect.

I drive a car and accept the risk of a possible accident very regularly.

Humans, in general, are bad at risk perception. We’re good when the risk is tangible and immediate, a fire in your kitchen, but we are bad at distant or intangible risk.

Every day we leave our house we do a risk benefit analysis. Depending on whether you walk, cycle or drive you will engage in different behaviours to manage your risk —walking on footpaths instead of the middle of the road, wearing a helmet in case you are knocked off your bike, wearing a seatbelt and driving at a reasonable speed to reduce your risk of a car accident.

Most of us are willing to accept the risk of dying in road accidents because the perceived benefit of mobility outweighs the risk of dying, even though 148 fatalities happened on Irish roads in 2020 — 62 drivers, 26 passengers, 32 pedestrians, 17 motorcyclists and 10 cyclists.

Cork had the highest number of road fatalities at 24 road deaths and behind each number, statistic and percentage are real people and their families who sadly have to live with the life-long consequences and reality of being so desperately unlucky.

When we hear about a tragic accident, we might drive extra carefully for a while, which is no bad thing, but sometimes humans make decisions to avoid a risk that is ultimately detrimental overall.

For instance, one of the unseen consequences of the 9/11 Twin Tower attack was that fearful flyers shunned air travel and instead undertook long road trips, which are statistically more hazardous. A study estimated that an extra 1,595 Americans died in car accidents in the year after the September 11 attacks.

In relation to managing our future health, we are regularly advised that not smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation, maintaining a healthy diet, and regular physical activity are all proven means of reducing our risk of developing cancer.

Even though we’ve heard statistics such as 1 in 10 women in Ireland develop breast cancer in their lifetime, or 1 in 20 people develop bowel cancer in their lifetime, we don’t always adhere to healthy lifestyle advice to reduce our cancer risk because the perceived risk is distant and in the future.

One in 5 Irish adults still smoke daily, even though 1 in every 2 smokers will die from a tobacco-related disease.

With the pace of the vaccination roll-out quickening, it is important that everyone informs themselves of the actual risks and benefits of vaccination.

Five in 100 people in Ireland have been infected with Covid-19 since the pandemic began and more than 4,700 people have died.

The approved vaccines all provide protection against severe illness, hospitalisation and death from Covid-19.

Like all medications, there are risks associated with them, but for the majority of people it is a risk they are willing to take to protect themselves and their community.

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