Pfizer's impact on patients with heart side-effects probed

Source: 1News

Whether people who suffered heart conditions following their Covid-19 vaccinations develop long-term health problems is being looked into by the Ministry of Health. But not all of them want to take part in the study, with one saying the invitation to take part was "offensive".

Ben Jonutz at Southern Heart Cardiology in Dunedin in January 2022.

Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle, while pericarditis is inflammation of the tissue forming a sac around the heart. Both are rare known side effects of the Pfizer vaccine Comirnaty that's made up the bulk of New Zealand's vaccination programme.

"International data suggests that for most people who develop myocarditis and/or pericarditis, their symptoms stop with appropriate management," National Immunisation Programme group manager post event (pharmacovigilance, vaccine effectiveness and population protection) Dr Tim Hanlon told 1News.

"However, there is limited data on the long-term health outcomes of individuals who experience these side effects."

So far about 250 people have been identified as eligible to participate in the new study and have been sent letters inviting them to take part.

To be eligible to participate in the study, people need to be 12 years of age or older and have been diagnosed with myocarditis or pericarditis by a doctor on or before 31 December 2021, after their first or second dose of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine.

"The number of eligible individuals is expected to increase as more information becomes available for existing reports or as new reports are received," Hanlon said.

Study 'too late' for man diagnosed with pericarditis

Last week Alexandra man Ben Jonutz, 25, received a letter from the ministry inviting him to participate in the study.

The heavy diesel mechanic was diagnosed with pericarditis following a reaction to the Pfizer vaccine last year.

Ben Jonutz at Clyde Hospital in November.

"I had my vaccine on November 2 and had chest pain within three hours," he told 1News. "It was almost like a stabbing pain in one spot, it wasn't until a couple of days later the chest pains became twice as bad."

He said he has had "three trips to ED, four ambulance trips and countless GP visits".

Jonutz said he was denied a medical exemption and his ACC claim was not accepted at first because of insufficient medical data. He said he was not referred to a cardiologist through the public health system, so paid to see one privately.

His claim was finally accepted after he saw the cardiologist on January 12 - an echocardiogram confirmed pericarditis.

Jonutz said he doesn't plan to take part in the study and found the letter "offensive".

Ben Jonutz received the letter from the ministry following his reaction.

"I was disregarded for so long over my reaction but now they are suggesting that I might have long-term health effects. Now it's taken seriously. It doesn't add up. It's too little, too late.

"Prior to this I didn't have a heart condition, now I have one - am I worse off if I get Covid than if I wasn't vaccinated?"

He said he would never tell someone not to get vaccinated but said the journey for him to get a diagnoses following his reaction should not have been "so hard".

"I am not an anti-vaxxer, I'm just talking about my own experience not other people's views on the vaccine, this is about my life not other people's lives."

Jonutz said he still gets chest pains, albeit not as bad. Prior to the injury he said he was an amateur bodybuilder, visiting the gym five times a week.

"Now I wouldn't even be able to dream of it. I can only just manage a day's work. If I over-exercise, I get major chest pains… My job involves major physical labour so any exercise on top of that would cause major aggravation."

ACC responds

ACC chief operating officer Gabrielle O'Connor acknowledged Jonutz had a long wait for his claim to be accepted.

"We appreciate three months may feel like a long time to wait for a decision. However, treatment injury claims can be more complex and as such usually take longer to determine than other claims. We often need to gather full medical notes and then seek advice from an external clinical specialist before making a cover decision."

ACC accepted the claim in January 2022.

ACC provided him backdated weekly compensation and treatment-related costs, she said.

"We will continue to work with him to understand any further treatment and support he requires," said O'Connor.

'All medicines have side effects'

Hanlon says New Zealand is in a "unique position" to study vaccine-induced myocarditis and/or pericarditis due to the limited spread of Covid-19 infection, until recently.

"All medicines have side effects, and the Covid-19 vaccine is no different. For most people, these effects are mild and don't last long. But in some very rare cases, people may experience more rare and serious side effects, such as myocarditis and pericarditis."

MedSafe data shows between February 18, 2021 when the vaccine rollout began and February 28 this year, there were 673 reported cases of possible myocarditis or pericarditis following vaccination with Comirnaty, after 10,621,932 doses.

Up until March 5, 2022, data released by ACC shows there were 2322 injury claims relating to Covid-19 vaccinations. Of those, 860 have been accepted, 1046 declined and the remaining 416 are yet to be decided. Only 59 of the approved claims have been for cardiac injuries.

The rate of myocarditis and pericarditis in Covid-19 patients is much higher than following vaccination.

The new study, a collaborative effort across the Ministry of Health, Medsafe, and Centre for Adverse Reactions Monitoring (CARM), aims to "help us to better understand how the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is working in Aotearoa New Zealand and to use this information to help manage these risks", said Hanlon.