Evaluating the risk: Looking at vaccine risk tolerance through the lens of commonly used medications

February 23, 2022 | Hamilton, ON
Contributed by Joanna Williams, DeGroote Writer

In the average household medicine cabinet, you may find an assortment of prescription medications most Canadians take every day. We know they have side effects, but we understand the benefits of taking these medications outweigh the risks. Several DeGroote School of Business researchers want people to consider the risk of vaccines using a similar risk profile that is adopted when taking other common medications. Their recent paper “Is vaccine hesitancy justified? Benchmarking post-market vaccine risks with five commonly used medicinal products in Canada” explores this very concept. They ask the question: Why do people accept the risks associated with prescribed medications, but are hesitant when it comes to vaccines?

They looked at the adverse events – severe reactions ranging from hospitalization to death, that have been documented and reported by doctors, hospitals and drug manufacturers – that occur with five common medications and then compared that to adverse events reported for vaccines.

“Our paper used real-world data to show that vaccine side effects, including those that are serious or life-threatening, are in general 100-fold less frequent compared to the common everyday medicinal products that are used to treat diseases, such as high blood pressure (ACE inhibitors), high cholesterol (HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors), and ulcers (proton pump inhibitors),” explains lead author Tuhin Maity who is also the Health Economics Manager at Eversana Canada and a Health Management doctoral student at the DeGroote School of Business.

He said this paper’s focus is unique because it is not often that you find comparisons of vaccines to other types of medications. So why did the researchers decide to take this approach, and why did they select these five medications?

“They’re the five most common drugs used in Canada. People don’t think twice about using those and we regularly prescribe them in the millions of doses,” explains Dr. Ahmad von Schlegell, Chief Medical Officer at Schlegel Villages, Geriatrician at Trillium Health Partners, Epidemiologist, and PhD Candidate at DeGroote.

“We undertake lots of risks in our lives and we don’t think twice about taking on the risks of these medications, but the hesitancy associated with vaccines is something that we are inordinately spending a lot of time on.”

Headshot of Tuhin Maity

Tuhin Maity

This research takes a closer look at how people hesitate to get a vaccine due to concerns over side effects. “The top two reasons for vaccine hesitancy among individuals are lack of confidence in the safety of vaccines and concerns about their risks and side effects,” says Maity. “Both vaccines and medicinal products are associated with side effects. However, unlike most common everyday medicinal products, vaccine safety is a more controversial topic and a major roadblock for achieving widespread vaccination coverage.”

The five vaccines they looked at have been around for many years and include common vaccines like influenza, meningococcus, pneumonia, MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), and shingles. They did not look at COVID vaccines because at the time they started their research in spring 2021 there was limited data available, and people were just beginning to be vaccinated.

The purpose of their research was to look at the overall topic of vaccine hesitancy. Although they did not look at COVID vaccines in this particular paper, Maity recently reviewed the adverse events data available on COVID vaccines and discovered the numbers were comparable to the vaccine adverse events rates published in the paper.

Christopher J. Longo

Christopher J. Longo

Through this academic paper, the authors provide a different way of thinking about the risks associated with vaccines. Maity hopes it will help frontline workers to provide additional information to people wanting to learn more about vaccine safety.

Von Schlegell says he is not sure if this research will ultimately have an impact on people with vaccine hesitancy but feels strongly that the results need to be a part of the conversation. It comes down to making an informed decision. “We have to take a look at the data and look at safety to make decisions,” explains von Schlegell. “It isn’t as dangerous as what people think to take vaccines.”

When someone is balancing the risk of side effects with the benefits of the vaccine, he urges them to consider the risks we already accept when it comes to the medications we take every day.

“We know there are several reasons for vaccine hesitancy including lack of trust of the science, lack of trust in government, and issues around efficacy and safety,” says Christopher J. Longo, PhD, Associate Professor of Health Policy and Management at DeGroote. “This paper deals with one important element of hesitancy, namely safety. We know the safety concern is significant, and we all hope that identifying how much lower the risk is compared to commonly accepted medicines will help those whose hesitancy is based on safety concerns.”

Headshot of Dr. Ahmad von Schlegell

Dr. Ahmad von Schlegell

Dr. von Schlegell realizes there may be some controversy with this subject given the recent protests but hopes their research will help to shed some light on vaccine safety and add to the conversation using scientific data. He does point out that their paper has gone through a peer review process, extensive reviews, and they had to answer many questions before it could be published.

As Dr. von Schlegell explains, “When you see rates that are 100 times different to adverse events and death, that makes a big difference in terms of understanding risk, which isn’t really talked about in a comparative sense of understanding the risks people undertake.”




Read the research article “Is vaccine hesitancy justified? Benchmarking post-market vaccine risks with five commonly used medicinal products in Canada” which was published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health on February 11, 2022.

One thought on "Evaluating the risk: Looking at vaccine risk tolerance through the lens of commonly used medications"

  1. Marla Adams says:

    This is a slippery slope. You could end up having more people question what medications they currently take (me included). Most people, particularly seniors don’t question their doctors when they prescribe medication. The only way they know the side effects is often if they read the paper print out that comes with their “new” prescription. If you are a senior it is in small print and not easy to read.

    I now as a result of your research will question the reason and potential side effects of every medication I receive.

    I also am a member of the Hamilton Family Health Team Advisory Group and will be bringing this info forward for discussion.

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