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COVID-19 vaccinations and brain tumours

With the help of a wonderful team of healthcare professionals, we've collected some information about how newly-developed COVID-19 vaccinations could impact those affected by a brain tumour. Updated: 17 March 2021

What are the vaccines?

Pfizer/BioNTech Vaccine

  • Official Name: COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine BNT162b2
  • This is an mRNA vaccine which means that it uses part of the virus genetic code to generate an antibody response in our bodies. It’s not a live virus.
  • 2 doses are needed, with the second dose being given at least 3 weeks after the first.
  • Clinical trials have shown it is 95% effective and there are no serious safety concerns.
  • Needs to be stored at minus 70 degrees C.

University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine

  • This is a ‘Viral Vector’ vaccine, which means it uses a genetically modified virus, with an additional gene added to it to generate an antibody response to coronavirus in our bodies.
  • Can be stored at regular fridge temperature.
  • 2 doses are needed, with the second dose given 4 to 12 weeks after the first one.

Moderna Vaccine

  • This is another mRNA which means it uses part of the virus genetic code, which the immune system can recognise and respond to.
  • The trial included 30,000 people and results showed it was 94% effective in preventing disease
  • 2 doses are also needed for this vaccine, and the second dose is recommended 28 days after the first.
  • This vaccine is due to be given from the Spring.

Who can get the vaccine?

The government have set a target to be able to offer the following four groups of people the vaccine by 15th February 2021:

  1. Residents in a care home for older adults and their carers
  2. Those over 80 and frontline health and social care workers
  3. Those 75 and over
  4. Those 70 years and over and or 16 and over, but clinically extremely vulnerable
  5. Those 65 years of age and over
  6. All individuals aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality.

The order that people receive the vaccination is based on advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

If you are living with a brain tumour and are considered clinically extremely vulnerable, you will be in the fourth prioritised group as listed above, and should be contacted to have your vaccine by 15th February. 

These people, including those on chemotherapy, have been advised to continue to follow Government shielding advice to reduce their risk of infection, even after vaccination.

If you're living with a brain tumour but aren't considered clinically extremely vulnerable, you may be in the sixth prioritised group - although this will depend on your individual circumstances.

Are people living with a brain tumour in the priority group for vaccines?

If you are currently shielding, then it is our understanding that you should be entitled to receive the vaccine by mid-February. However, not everyone who has been diagnosed with a brain tumour will need to shield.

If you're unsure of whether you're on the shielding list you can:

If you're living with a brain tumour but aren't considered clinically extremely vulnerable, you may be in the sixth prioritised group - although this will depend on your individual circumstances.

It's important to note that the full Government guidance outlines that:

"‘The examples above [the priority groups for receiving vaccination] are not exhaustive, and, within these groups, the prescriber should apply clinical judgment to take into account the risk of COVID-19 exacerbating any underlying disease that a patient may have, as well as the risk of serious illness from COVID-19 itself."

So, if you feel that you should be included in the sixth prioritised group, you can always talk to your medical team or GP to find out if they can help you access the vaccine more quickly based on their clinical judgement.

Are carers also in the priority group for vaccines?

Government guidance has now been updated to include carers in the sixth priority group for the vaccine, alongside people aged aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality.

    The full update reads, "This also includes those who are in receipt of a carer’s allowance, or those who are the main carer of an elderly or disabled person whose welfare may be at risk if the carer falls ill."

    It's important to note that the full Government guidance outlines that:

    "‘The examples above [the priority groups for receiving vaccination] are not exhaustive, and, within these groups, the prescriber should apply clinical judgment to take into account the risk of COVID-19 exacerbating any underlying disease that a patient may have, as well as the risk of serious illness from COVID-19 itself."

    If you're caring for somebody living with a brain tumour and believe their welfare would be seriously at risk if you or they contracted COVID-19, you may be able to access the vaccine more quickly. Ensuring you're registered as their carer and then speaking to their medical team would be the best way to find out whether this is possible.

    If you have any questions or wish to share your experience of trying to access the COVID-19 vaccine as a carer, please contact our Support and Infomation Team by emailing support@thebraintumourcharity.org, calling 0808 800 0004 or through live chat by clicking the red button in the bottom corner of your screen.

    Is the vaccine safe for people living with a brain tumour?

    Although the trials for the vaccines did not look specifically at people living with a brain tumour, they have all involved:

    • people with different chronic underlying conditions
    • people with at-risk conditions
    • very broad age ranges
    • people are at extremely high risk from coronavirus compared with the general population

    The trials have been carefully assessed by agencies like the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), who have judged the vaccines to be safe and effective, and recommended their roll-out in the UK.

    They’ve also been looked at by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) , who are the independent experts who advise Government on which vaccine/s the United Kingdom should use and provide advice on prioritisation at a population level.

    They found that there’s no indication that there should be any difficulty in giving it to people with chronic underlying conditions.

    So whilst they have not specifically looked at people living with a brain tumour, the safety of the vaccine has been looked at for people with other ‘at-risk’ conditions and deemed to be safe for this population.

    Advice from the experts

    We recently (November 2020) held a COVID-19 Q+A with a number of healthcare professionals who have shared their understanding about vaccinations and brain tumours:

    Are we more likely to have a bad reaction from the COVID-19 jab?

    Farouk (Clinical Fellow in Neuro-oncology): I suppose the right answer is that different people will react to jabs in different ways, regardless of other medical conditions you may have. I, for example, have had a bad spell after a flu jab previously. So to answer your question, I do not believe that all patients with brain tumours will react badly to a vaccine. If you are undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy, you might be more prone to the effects of a vaccine. It is important though that if your symptoms persist and don't improve in a few days, they may be unrelated to the vaccination and it’s worth considering other causes.

    I have epilepsy from my tumour. Would the vaccine increase the number/severity of seizures I have, given I have more when I’m ill? And would having epilepsy or taking epilepsy medication reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine?

    Matt (Consultant Clinical Oncologist): Any reaction to a vaccine might increase your seizures, but only for a few days. Taking the anti-seizure medication shouldn't reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine.

    Is research taking place to ascertain whether any of the new vaccines will be safe for those with glioblastomas? Or is there particular evidence already included in the data now being presented to the regulatory authorities?

    Anna (Advanced Nurse Practitioner): At this time there isn’t any specific condition-related research as focus has been on developing a general vaccine for all. However, as we begin to understand the virus more, this may be included in future research.

    Read the full Q&A

    You may have read or heard that there is some initial data suggesting that single doses of the Pfizer vaccine may be less effective for people with cancer. We asked our research team about what this could mean:

    Being an evidence led organisation we’re glad to see that the effectiveness of one COVID-19 vaccine is being studied in people with cancer. It should be noted that the results of this paper are interim (meaning that the researchers don’t have all the data they intend to collect, yet). It should also be noted that most of the results in this publication are based on people who have had only one dose of the recommended two. We also noted that the small number cancer patients in this research (95 with solid cancers) didn’t include anyone with a brain tumour. We look forward to seeing their subsequent publications and hope that other research will specifically include people with brain tumours”.

    Erica Moyes, Research Communications Manager at The Brain Tumour Charity

    What about if I’m having treatment?

    You can still receive the vaccination if you are receiving treatment for your brain tumour. Public health experts and cancer specialists have agreed that people living with cancer should receive the vaccine.

    Because your immune system needs to be working at some level in order to respond to the vaccine, it is possible that they may be slightly less effective for people having chemotherapy or other cancer treatments. But it is still expected that the vaccine will give some useful protection against the virus and it’s advisable that you have it when possible.

    As well as chemotherapy, experts have said that the vaccine can be given to people going through radiotherapy, immunotherapy as well as hormonal therapies.

    If your cancer treatment is affecting your immune system, your healthcare team will advise you on the best time to get your COVID-19 vaccine – there may be points during your treatment when the vaccine is likely to be most effective for you.

    However, these people, including those on chemotherapy, have been advised to continue to follow Government shielding advice to reduce their risk of infection, even after vaccination

    How can I access the vaccine?

    In most cases when it is the time for your vaccine, you will receive a letter either from your GP or the national booking system, which will include all of the information you need to book an appointment to have the vaccination.

    The NHS have stressed that you should not contact your GP or the NHS about your vaccination until you have received a letter. We know it can be hard to wait and you might think that you should receive a vaccine as a priority, but it’s important not to contact the NHS directly about receiving a vaccine.

    If you aren’t sure whether you are considered clinically extremely vulnerable, or whether you should currently be shielding, you can follow the steps above to find out more.

    One exception that is considered is if you are pregnant. Although there's no evidence the COVID-19 vaccine is unsafe if you're pregnant, more evidence is needed before it can be routinely offered to someone who is pregnant.

    The JCVI has updated its advice to recommend you may be able to have the vaccine if you're pregnant and:

    • at high risk of getting coronavirus because of where you work
    • have a health condition that means you're at high risk of serious complications of coronavirus

    You can have the COVID-19 vaccine if you're breastfeeding.

    You should always talk to your GP or your medical team if you have any concerns or questions about the vaccines.

    Unfortunately, some people have been fraudulently contacted by email or text message by scammers claiming to be offering the opportunity to sign up for the COVID-19 vaccine. This scam instructs people to click a link in the message that takes them to an online form where they are prompted to input personal and financial details.

    Remember, the vaccine is only available on the NHS and is free of charge. The NHS will never ask you for bank details or to pay for the vaccine. When you are eligible for the vaccine, the NHS will contact you by letter to arrange your vaccination.

    The Action Fraud website has lots of information about what to look for and how to keep yourself safe

    Which vaccine should I have? And is this my choice?

    The vaccines people are offered will be appropriate for them and this decision is based on clinical judgement supported by the advice of JCVI. You cannot choose which one you have.

    The decision will take into account individual vaccine characteristics, which may mean they are more suitable for some groups of people, and not others – for example, some may be less well tolerated or effective in certain age groups.

    Remember that any vaccines that are available will have been approved because they pass the MHRA’s tests on safety and efficacy, so people should be assured that whatever vaccine they get will be highly effective and protect them from coronavirus.

    Are there any side effects?

    Like all medicines, vaccines can cause side effects, but it’s important to remember that most of these are mild and short-term and should improve in a few days, Not everyone gets them.

    Pfizer vaccination side effects could include:

    • Pain, swelling or redness at injection site
    • tiredness
    • headache or nausea
    • muscle or joint pain
    • chills
    • fever

    They’ve reported that no ‘significant’ side effects have been seen in the over 43,000 people involved in trials.

    Oxford/AstraZeneca side effects could include:

    • Pain, warmth, redness, itching, swelling or bruising where the injection is given
    • generally feeling unwell or having flu like symptoms
    • feeling tired
    • chills or feeling feverish
    • headache or feeling sick
    • joint pain or muscle ache

    Whatever vaccine you are given, you will also be given information about possible side-effects, how to look out for them and what to do if you experience any.

    People with allergies to penicillin, eggs, shellfish are sometimes concerned about having an anaphylaxis reaction to the injection. All 3 injections have no contraindications to people with these allergies. However if you were concerned, you can speak to your GP. Also, at the site of injection, everyone is observed for 15 mins post injection anyway by a qualified nurse just in case there are any side effects.

    What is the government considering for the prioritization of groups for the vaccine?

    The full prioritisation list can be found here and is as follows (in order of priority):

    • Residents in a care home for older adults and their carers
    • All those 80 years of age and over and frontline health and social care workers
    • All those 75 years of age and over
    • All those 70 years of age and over and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals
    • All those 65 years of age and over. All individuals aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality
    • All those 60 years of age and over
    • All those 55 years of age and over
    • All those 50 years of age and over

    The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) are the independent experts who advise Government on which vaccine/s the United Kingdom should use and provide advice on prioritisation at a population level.

    They have advised that the first priorities for any COVID-19 vaccination programme should be the prevention of COVID-19 deaths and the protection of health and social care staff and systems.

    Secondary priorities could include vaccination of those at increased risk of hospitalisation and at increased risk of exposure, and to maintain resilience in essential public services.

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