ASTRAZENECA COMMS CRISIS
News streams last week flooded with concerns over the AstraZeneca vaccine and potential links to rare bloods clots. Despite repeated affirmation from scientists that the vaccine is safe and presents an incredibly low risk for majority of people, this comms crisis has only fuelled vaccine hesitancy and public health anxiety.
When phone screens across the UK lit up with notifications about the vaccine last week, the message was simple, ‘Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine linked to rare blood clots.’ Public fear and concern ensued, especially from the millions of people that have already received the Covid-19 vaccine.
On 3 April, Dr Joe Pajak, West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust governor said, “reports that there may be a link between AstraZeneca vaccine and rare blood clots need to be addressed robustly, swiftly, and clearly. Many will have woken up today and will be understandably seriously concerned by this news. Confidence and trust paramount."
Due to widespread reporting and public discussion on social media, false information spread like wildfire. But lack of consistency in the internal comms strategy is facilitating these concerns. Health professionals and government authorities are releasing conflicting statements and messaging.
The UK announced it would restrict the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab to under 30s, on same day the EU showed support for the vaccine in all age groups. On Tuesday, Germany announced it would stop the use of AstraZeneca in those under 60. Spain continues to roll out the vaccine while France has announced plans to pull AstraZeneca as the second jab for under 55s, despite previous advice not to mix doses.
The inconsistency of government and public health communications makes for a confusing narrative. Nikki Kay, public health specialist based in Southeast Asia, says, "I’m honestly still confused about it. I get why everyone is making their decision but there are a lot of internal contradictions in their positions."
Matt Hancock likened the risk to that of taking a long-haul flight while World Health Organisation’s director-general says, “The risks of severe disease and death from Covid-19 are many times higher than the very small risks related to the vaccine." But many people are still unsure after concerning media coverage and a lack of consistency in international government strategy.
AstraZeneca and public health comms teams have quite a challenge ahead in order to limit this reputational damage. Dr Angela Rasmussen, virologist and associate research scientist at the Centre of Infection and Immunity at Columbia University School of Public Health, says, "Everything about the AstraZeneca vaccine has been confusing. With mounting evidence of rare but serious adverse events in some, we need to seriously, transparently evaluate risks & benefits."