Patients due for elective surgery should get the vaccine before going under the knife, experts say

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  • Researchers are advising governments to prioritise elective surgery patients for the Covid-19 vaccine over the general public
  • The study looked at surgery cases in 116 countries, including South Africa
  • Scientists estimated that almost 60 000 deaths can be prevented if surgical patients are vaccinated before their operations


As the world undergoes vaccination programmes for SAR-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, scientists are recommending that elective surgery patients should get vaccinated ahead of the general population.

This recommendation was published in the British Journal of Surgery, which is a study that investigated if preoperative SARS-CoV-2 vaccination could support safer elective surgery. 

Why this study matters?

Researchers from the University of Birmingham studied data from 141 582 patients from across 1 667 hospitals in 116 countries, including South Africa, Brazil, China, India, the UAE, the UK and the USA. This is the world's largest-ever international study on surgery.

The authors note that the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has disrupted elective surgery globally, with millions of elective surgeries either postponed or cancelled.

However, in instances where elective surgery had to take place, scientists said that just being in a hospital significantly increased surgical patients' chances of contracting the virus – which is associated with high rates of postoperative pulmonary complications and death.

Based on the high risks faced by surgical patients, scientists calculated that vaccinating surgical patients is more likely to prevent Covid-19-related deaths than vaccines given to the population at large – particularly among the over-70s and those undergoing surgery for cancer. 

The study sample involved surgery patients in three different age groups: 18–49, 50–69, and people over the age of 70. 

Protecting surgical patients

The findings of the research show that global prioritisation of pre-operative vaccination for elective patients could prevent an additional 58 687 Covid-19-related deaths a year.

The study recommends that the prioritisation of elective surgery for patients above 70 years alongside other high-risk groups should be part of governments’ policies during early vaccination programmes.

“Globally, a policy of preoperatively vaccinating elective surgery patients aged ≥70 years in preference to age-matched general populations was projected to prevent an additional 26 624 Covid-19-related deaths in one year, assuming global surgical activity was at 75% of pre-pandemic volume,” the paper reads.

Scientist want policymakers to consider this as a priority when making decisions regarding their vaccination programmes.

"Preoperative vaccination could support a safe re-start of elective surgery by significantly reducing the risk of Covid-19 complications in patients and preventing tens of thousands of Covid-19-related post-operative deaths,” says co-lead author Aneel Bhangu in a press statement.

"Many countries, particularly low- and middle-income countries, will not have widespread access to Covid for several years. While vaccine supplies are limited, governments are prioritising vaccination for groups at the highest risk of Covid-19 mortality. Our work can help to inform these decisions,” he adds.

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