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After AstraZeneca back-and-forth, authorities could struggle to convince sceptics

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Robert West, a professor of health psychology at University College London, speaking to Euronews on March 19, 2021
Robert West, a professor of health psychology at University College London, speaking to Euronews on March 19, 2021   -   Copyright  Euronews
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National health authorities in Europe have a lot of work to do to boost the public’s confidence in vaccines after halting use of the AstraZeneca jab, a health psychology expert tells Euronews.

“They feel that they're being cautious by taking the steps that they are. The reality is that they're not being cautious,” said Robert West, a professor of health psychology at University College London.

“What they're doing is taking a decision which, as we will see, unfortunately, in the end, will end up having cost lives.

“Not just because of the delays in getting this particular vaccine to people who would otherwise have taken it. It also raises unnecessary concerns by members of the public who are in no position themselves to judge.”

France, Italy and Germany are resuming use of the AstraZeneca jab after the European Medicines Agency concluded it was safe and effective, that it was not associated with an increase in the overall risk of blood clots, and that its benefits outweighed the risks.

However, the EMA said it would further investigate whether the shot could be linked to very rare cases of blood clot associated with a low platelet count. In its statement, it cited 25 cases among the 20 million people who received the vaccine across Europe, including in the UK.

Still, Denmark, Sweden and Norway are keeping the jab on pause while their own health authorities review the findings.

Finland also decided to suspend the jab on Friday.

Now many experts fear the mixed messaging could undermine public trust in vaccines and slow down immunisation campaigns.

“It's right to investigate any potential signals of problems, but you can do that while you continue immunisation,'' said Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton. “If we pause the vaccine rollout every time there's a possible signal, it won't be much of a rollout.”

UCL Professor West has some advice for authorities to improve their communication: Be proactive, factual and transparent.

“You have to be very specific about giving factual information so that people can see and make their own judgements about what the risk-benefit ratio is,” he said.

"When you see that literally tens of millions of people have had a particular drug – in this case, the vaccine – and that you've had literally a handful of cases of concern that may or may not be related to the drug, then the risk-benefit equation is so obvious to anyone.

“It's like the difference between thousands of deaths and possibly none, maybe a few. It’s just a no brainer."

Watch the interview with Professor Robert West in the video player above.