OPINION

'It's a farce': Illawarra breastfeeding mums not eligible for vaccines

Illawarra Mercury journalist Kate McIlwain with daughters Winona, who was born in February, and Hadley, 2. Picture: Anna Warr
Illawarra Mercury journalist Kate McIlwain with daughters Winona, who was born in February, and Hadley, 2. Picture: Anna Warr

Opinion

I was booked in this week to receive my first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

I'm under 40 and I don't have health conditions or a job that would make me eligible for Pfizer. I've listened to the advice, read about the risks of TTS and am keen to do my bit (for me, those around me and the rest of Greater Sydney) and get the jab.

To be completely honest, even the tiniest one-in-a-million bit of risk of the rare blood clotting disorder did scare me, but I'm letting my rational brain guide me and I knew what symptoms I would need to look out for if it were to happen to me.

I was pleased with my decision, because every day the virus numbers in Greater Sydney grow and the deaths and illnesses being caused by the Delta strain concern me that little bit more.

But, then last night, chatting to a friend about how we're surviving life in lockdown with our babies and little kids, I found out that the Australian Government health advice says AstraZeneca isn't for me.

Like my friend who broke this news (which I confirmed with a chat with my own doctor and a good read of the official advice), I'm breastfeeding. And according to the latest Australian advice, "Comirnaty (Pfizer) is the preferred COVID-19 vaccine for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or planning pregnancy".

Adding to my frustration, I've just found out it's World Breastfeeding Week. And apparently the theme this year is 'protect breastfeeding: a shared responsibility'.

Likewise, advice from the World Health Organisation only refers to the safety of vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna - not AZ - when it comes to breastfeeding women. My own doctor said simply, if you're breastfeeding, don't get AZ.

My youngest daughter isn't yet six months old, which means breastfeeding is her primary source of nutrition, hydration, comfort... everything really. For lots of reasons, I combination fed my firstborn and I know formula is a great option for many mums and babies, but despite weeks of trying, this little baby won't take a bottle of any sort. And anyway, after getting past the brutal early days of breastfeeding hell, it now helps both of us sleep at night, calms her on those tough days, and we're not planning on stopping anytime soon. And anyway, the health advice tells me that I should keep breastfeeding for as long as possible. So it looks like Pfizer is my only vaccine option.

Thing is, despite this advice, I can't get Pfizer. Despite the advice, I don't meet any of the eligibility criteria to get it.

If I were to lie, and say that I had a health condition or job, or close family contact, I could maybe get an appointment somewhere, or try my luck at the vaccine hub when it opens. But as an obedient, informed and pro-vaccine citizen who is trying to do my best for me and the health system as a whole, I don't really feel good about "skipping the queue" and lying to get a Pfizer jab. And why should I have to lie if I can't get the AstraZeneca vaccine?

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So now, I could go against health advice, and get my AZ jab that I'm booked in for. But it's one thing to take a risk on my own behalf, and quite another to do so on behalf of a five month old baby.

Or I could go against health advice, and stop breastfeeding my baby.

Or I could go against health advice - and daily pleas from Gladys Berejiklian - and not get vaccinated.

What a farce.

Adding to my frustration, I've just found out it's World Breastfeeding Week. And apparently the theme this year is "protect breastfeeding: a shared responsibility".

Stuck in this ridiculous bureaucratic stuff up where I'm trying my hardest to get vaccinated and protect myself and my family I certainly don't feel like there's much "shared responsibility" happening. It's already difficult enough to breastfeed, and there's already too much conflicting advice and pressure when it comes to mothers trying to make the right decision for themselves and their babies.

The current vaccine system is putting women under 40 with breastfed babies in a precarious position, where there's no right choice and no clear advice on how to navigate their decision. Like lots of things about this vaccine rollout, it needs to change as quickly as possible.

Australian Government advice on vaccination for pregnant, breastfeeding women

"Women who are currently breastfeeding are encouraged to seek advice from their doctor on COVID-19 vaccines."

"Women who are currently breastfeeding are encouraged to seek advice from their doctor on COVID-19 vaccines."

Pfizer is the preferred COVID-19 vaccine for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or planning a pregnancy according to the federal health department.

According to the department website, research has shown that Pfizer is safe for pregnant women, however this research has not yet been carried out for AstraZeneca.

AZ is associated with a rare risk of a clotting condition called thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS), which appears to be more common in people under 60 years of age.

A federal health department spokesman said the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) and the Royal Australia and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have advised that pregnant women can be routinely offered Pfizer at any stage of pregnancy.

"Pregnant women with COVID-19 have an increased risk of severe illness and adverse pregnancy outcomes and there is good evidence that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are safe to be given at any stage of pregnancy," he said.

"Women who are currently breastfeeding are encouraged to seek advice from their doctor on COVID-19 vaccines."

While pregnant women were a priority group for COVID-19 vaccination, the spokesman said, access to Pfizer would be expanded to additional groups as the supply of vaccine increased in the coming months.

"The government encourages everyone to be vaccinated as soon as they are eligible."

This story 'It's a farce': breastfeeding mums not eligible for vaccines first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.