Covid vaccine safety in SA: If there is a link between a death, and a recent jab, it will be probed

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  • Reports of death after Covid vaccination are extremely rare
  • However, if a link is suspected, it can be reported, the SA health department says
  • Data suggest that the benefits of Covid-19 vaccination far outweigh the risk of death or severe side effects caused by the jab

As the global race to vaccinate people against Covid-19 continues, reports of individuals dying shortly after receiving the jab are spreading at high speed, leading to speculation over whether the vaccines were the cause of the deaths. 

The vaccines have been proven to be safe and effective against Covid disease and reports of death after Covid vaccination are rare, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates

However, if unexpected medical problems, including death, arise after one has taken the vaccine (known as "adverse events") – even if it is not clear if the vaccine caused the problem – people in South Africa can report this, a Department of Health department spokesperson, Foster Mohale, told Health24.

“All deaths are certified by qualified medical practitioners and reported to Home Affairs. However, if there is a strong suspicion that the circumstances that led to the death are linked to Covid-19 vaccine, people are urged to inform healthcare workers or District Surveillance Officers within 24 hours,” Mohale said.

Alternatively, they can report these cases on the Med Safety App, which was recently launched by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra), Mohale added.

It is a free mobile-based app that allows people to report any adverse side effects to several medicines and therapies, including the Covid vaccines, Health24 previously reported. It can be downloaded from Google Play or the App Store.

“They can also call the Covid-19 hotline on 0800 029 999 for investigations by the multidisciplinary healthcare team,” he said.

Finally, Mohale explained, there is also a Ministerial Committee called NISEC (National Immunisation Safety Expert Committee) that examines any Adverse Event Following Vaccination (AEFI). This committee, he said, follows global protocols.

Role of NISEC

According to the website of the National Institute For Communicable Diseases (NICD), the NISEC is “appointed by the Minister of Health [and] includes experts from all clinical disciplines whose expertise may contribute to determining the role of vaccines causing adverse events”.

These experts on the committee have various degrees of expertise and include pharmacists, pharmacovigilance experts, infectious disease specialists, paediatricians, immunologists, and public health specialists. Meetings are held quarterly or ad hoc, depending on the number of cases reported.

Mohale reassured that all possible causes of deaths, other than those resulting from physical accidents, are established through an autopsy or post-mortem examination.

Making false connections 

Medical professionals, including Dr Amesh Adalja, a Johns Hopkins infectious disease expert, said that in most cases, people are making a false connection between Covid vaccination and death.

“For example, if you’re vaccinating nursing home patients, there are some nursing home patients that are going to die within the week after vaccination, irrespective of whether they got that vaccine,” he told US-based television station WPXI in February. 

“So, just because there’s a temporal association, meaning a time association … got a vaccine and you died, doesn’t mean that there’s a causal association that the vaccine was the reason that you died,” he said.

DoH encourages vaccination

“It is common to experience some mild-to-moderate side-effects when receiving vaccinations,” said Mohale. “This is because your immune system is instructing your body to react in certain ways.” 

He stressed that getting vaccinated will help protect you against developing severe Covid disease and death caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

“You may experience some mild side effects after getting vaccinated, which are signs that your body is building protection. Some people have no side effects. Any adverse event following immunisation of concern should be reported,” advised Mohale.

“We continuously encourage all people that in case the side effects persist beyond three days, they can visit their nearest healthcare provider, clinic, hospital, or General Practitioner,” he said.

What the data tell us

An updated article by the CDC notes that a review of available clinical information, including death certificates, autopsy, and medical records, has not established a causal link to the Covid vaccine, but recent reports indicate a plausible causal relationship between the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) jab and blood clots known as thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) – a rare but serious adverse event which has caused deaths.

Early results on the safety of the jab in the South African Sisonke trial were recently published and showed that out of 288 368 healthcare workers who received the jab, four out of five cases of blood clots were linked to the vaccine. While the one remaining case was tentatively linked, the other four had underlying conditions that put them at high risk of developing the condition. 

By comparison, the chances of developing blood clots due to Covid infection itself are up to 10 times higher than from Covid vaccination, an analysis by the American Heart Association found.

The J&J clinical trial, in which SA participated, showed that the single-dose vaccine prevented 100% of hospitalisations and deaths related to Covid infection.

A total of 300 000 doses have been earmarked for SA teachers, with another consignment is due next week, News24 reported. More than 1.5 million people in the country have already received their first shot of the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. 

READ | The EVDS will schedule your appointments for the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine 6 weeks apart. Here’s why

READ | Vaccinated adults protect unvaccinated children around them, study shows

READ | Encouraging study shows Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine protective against variants, including Beta in SA

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