An Auckland woman who reported an extremely rare adverse reaction after her first Pfizer jab has been denied a vaccine exemption by the Government.
Sue McIntyre, 55, requested a formal exemption from the Ministry of Health late last year on the advice of her GP and a clinical immunologist, after experiencing a temporary bout of Bell’s Palsy shortly after her first Covid-19 vaccination.
The condition involves a sudden – and usually temporary - paralysis of a facial nerve, and was identified as a potential but rare side effect of the Pfizer vaccine during the company’s trials.
McIntyre says she looked in the mirror around a week after her first jab and saw part of her face unable to move.
“I saw that one side of my face was frozen, and the other side of my face was sort of drooping, and my tongue was totally numb,” she said.
“I went to brush my teeth, and toothpaste just dribbled out of one side of my mouth, and the other side was completely motionless, I couldn't move one side of my face, and I think that's the same symptoms as having a stroke, so that's what the doctor thought was initially happening, so that was pretty scary.”
She went straight to hospital where doctors formally diagnosed Bell’s Palsy.
Hospital records show a doctor filed an adverse reaction report to Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring (CARM), the agency which monitors potential reactions to vaccines.
Experts say the condition is fairly common and can follow a range of issues including viral infections.
The University of Auckland’s Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris, who studies adverse reactions in vaccines, said studies had revealed “different results” around the world.
“Bell’s Palsy was observed to occur during the clinical trials and it's been specially watched for since the vaccine's been deployed across all these huge populations, and what we can conclude is if it is an increased risk with the vaccine, it's very rare, perhaps maybe four additional cases per 100,000,” she said.
“It is about six times more likely to have Bell’s Palsy after having the infection itself, as opposed to potentially associated with the vaccine.”
However, the experience was terrifying for McIntyre, and her GP later sent a formal application to the Ministry of Health for a temporary Covid-19 vaccine exemption, with the support of clinical immunologist Associate Professor Rohan Ameratunga.
The expert wrote a letter stating he had “reviewed” the case and “would agree she (McIntyre) should not have a second vaccine at this stage”.
But the Ministry of Health has since declined the application and is refusing to give McIntyre an exemption.
Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield wrote a letter saying, “I am not satisfied, based on the evidence or other information provided, that you meet the specified Covid-19 vaccination exemption criteria”.
Instead, she was offered an alternative vaccine for her second dose – Astra Zeneca – or “supervised administration”. The letter offers no explanation as to why McIntyre does not meet the criteria, simply stating that “there are only rare circumstances a person is unable to receive the Pfizer vaccine”.
The Ministry of Health also refused to answer questions from 1News on the application, citing the Privacy Act despite McIntyre notifying them she had waived her privacy and gave permission for them to discuss her case.
In a statement, a ministry spokesperson said “robust systems and processes” were in place to assess exemption applications, which were overseen by a Temporary Medical Exemption Panel.
“The panel includes medical and nurse practitioners with significant expertise and a Māori health leader,” the statement reads.
“This includes a Clinical Immunologist and Allergist, Consultant Neurologist, Clinical Pharmacologist and Endocrinologist amongst other primary health care specialists.”
So far the Ministry has made decisions on 997 exemption applications, with 490 exemptions granted and 507 declined.
McIntyre must now take her second vaccination by Monday or she will lose her job, and says she feels the system is “totally unfair”.
She felt she was being asked to ignore the advice of her GP and an immunologist, “which sort of doesn't feel right to me”.
“I think if [Dr Bloomfield’s] not going to assess me, he should actually get advice from a specialist, which is an immunologist,” she said.
“People on TV listen to immunologists all the time, so why are they not prepared to listen to one now?”
The Ministry had made no effort to explain why she did not meet the criteria and it was a “very hard position to be in”.
“I'm feeling really nervous, I'm feeling upset, my stomach is churning, I'm just so worried,” she said.
“I need to do it by the 17th to keep my job, so I don't have choice, I love my job and I need to work, so that is why I'm going to go and get it.”
Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris – who was not involved in the decision, but is an expert on adverse reactions - says it’s “highly unlikely” that Bell’s Palsy would crop up twice, based on what has been observed around the world.
“I certainly want to sympathise with anyone who's had a bad experience and I think that's something that we do need to talk more about, but when it comes saying, ‘okay, you should have a second dose’ - it has to be guided by science,” she said.
“What we want to be concerned about, is there risk to a person actually experiencing something again - something potentially serious again - and that's really part of what drives the guidance on these decisions.”
But after her experience, McIntyre would rather not take a second vaccination and is terrified to go through it again.
“What I want Ashley Bloomfield to know is sending back a letter with no reason why I don't meet the criteria is not acceptable, and people in my situation need to know what else we can do,” she said,
“I just want a bit of compassion for us who are trying to do the right thing.”
She's booked in for the jab on Monday – her plea for compassion denied.