‘Troubling’ cases justify AstraZeneca pause, says French vaccine chief

A handful of "troubling" cases of blood clots justify the suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine, the French government's top vaccination advisor said Tuesday, adding that he hoped all doubts would soon be removed about its safety.

'Troubling' cases justify AstraZeneca pause, says French vaccine chief
A doctor injects an AstraZeneca dose to a patient in Paris, on February 25th. Photo: Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP

Alain Fischer, an immunologist who heads the government’s vaccination advisory board, said a higher number than normal of pulmonary embolism – blood clots in the lungs – had caused alarm at the weekend.

“It’s the fact that there were a few very unusual and troubling cases which justify this pause and the analysis,” Fischer told France Inter radio, adding that until the weekend there had been no increase in the number of embolism cases that are typically observed.

“It’s not lost time,” he said of the suspension. “It’s necessary time to carry out analysis.” 

President Emmanuel Macron announced the suspension Monday as France followed the example of a host of other European countries including Germany, Ireland and Denmark to stop using the vaccine while regulators assess its safety. 

UPDATE: Which countries in Europe have suspended AstraZeneca vaccinations?

“We are in a situation where there is a rational scientific doubt,” Fischer said.

“I hope that this doubt will be lifted by colleagues who are working on this issue… afterwards, obviously we will need to resume our work of teaching and explaining, which will not be easy, I’m aware of that.”

Perceptions that the AstraZeneca vaccine is less effective than rivals from Pfizer and Moderna and has more significant side-effects, such as mild flu symptoms, meant that uptake of the jab had already been slow in France.

ANALYSIS: Why are French health workers so reluctant to get the Covid vaccine?

The health ministry revealed at the beginning of March that three in four jabs delivered by AstraZeneca had gone unused. 

“Transparency is the first step in creating confidence. We’re in a situation where everything that is known is said, and all the doubts are raised,” Fischer said.

Experts at the World Health Organisation and European regulators are to meet Tuesday to assess the vaccine’s safety, with AstraZeneca and the British government insisting that the reports of blood clots should not be linked to the vaccine.

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France launches ski safety campaign after rising number of accidents

Injuries and even deaths while skiing in France have seen a sharp rise in recent years - leading the French government to create a new ski safety campaign.

France launches ski safety campaign after rising number of accidents

The early part of the ski season in France was dominated by headlines over the lack of snow in popular mountain resorts – but, now that climatic conditions have started to improve for skiers and there is at least some snow, the winter sports season is in gearing up to hit full swing.

READ ALSO Snow latest: Have France’s ski resorts reopened?

Heading into the winter holiday season – French schools in ‘Zone A’ break up for two weeks on February 4th, followed on February 11th by schools in ‘Zone B’, while schools in Zone C finish for the vacation on February 18th – the government has launched an awareness campaign highlighting skiing good practice and how to avoid accidents.

READ ALSO What can I do if I’ve booked a French skiing holiday and there’s no snow?

The Pratiquer l’hiver campaign has advice, posters and videos highlighting safety on the slopes, in an effort to reduce the number of accidents on France’s mountains – where, every year, between 42,000 and 51,000 people have to be rescued, according to the Système National d’Observation de la Sécurité en Montagne (SNOSM)

The campaign, with information in a number of languages including English, covers:

  • on-piste and off-piste safety advice (signalling, avalanche risks, freestyle areas, snowshoes, ski touring, etc.);
  • Help and instructions for children explained in a fun and educational way (educational games, games of the 7 families to be cut out, safety quizzes, advice sheets for sledding, skiing, prevention clips, etc.);
  • physical preparation (warm up before exercise, prepare your muscles and stretch well, also how to adapt the choice of pistes and the speed to your physical condition);
  • equipment and safety (helmet, goggles, sunscreen, etc.);
  • marking and signalling on the slopes (opening and marking of green, blue, red and black slopes, off-piste).

There are 220 ski resorts in France, the world’s second largest ski area, covering more than 26,500 hectares of land, across 30 departements.

In the 2021/22 ski season, totalling 53.9 million ‘ski days’, according to SNOSM, emergency services made 49,622 interventions in France’s ski areas, and 45,985 victims were treated for injuries.

The results show an increase in the number of interventions by ski safety services – a rise of 13 percent compared to the average of the five years prior to the pandemic – and the number of injured, up 8 percent. 

A few incidents on the slopes made the headlines at the time, including the five-year-old British girl who died after an adult skier crashed into her in the Alpine resort of Flaine, and the French actor Gaspard Ulliel, who died at the age of 37 after an accident while skiing in La Rosière, Savoie.

In total, 12 people died as a result of skiing incidents in France in the 2021/22 ski season. Three died following collisions between skiers, two after hitting an obstacle, and seven as a result of a fall or solo injuries. SNOSM also reported “a significant number of non-traumatic deaths, mostly due to cardiac problems” on France’s ski slopes.

The injuries due to solo falls – which represent 95 percent of all injuries –  on the ski slopes increased 2 percent compared to winter 2018/2019. Collisions between users fell, however (4.8 percent against . 5.6 percent) as did collisions between skiers and other people, and obstacles (0.7 percent compared to 0.85 percent).

The number of fatalities caused by avalanches, however, is at a historic low over the period 2011 to 2021, in part because of a relative lack of snow – leading to a drop in the number of avalanches and fewer people going off-piste, while awareness campaigns are hitting their mark, according to SNOSM.