Should your child get the jab? Read this and make up your own mind
Should your child get the jab? As Freedom Day is delayed, it’s the burning question. Now read this essential report… and make up your own mind
When 17-year-old Will Laird came home with a slightly sore arm after being vaccinated against Covid-19, his mother Nicky admits she felt a little envious.
‘My husband and I were still waiting for our first jabs at the time, in March, so I did wish it had been our turn,’ she says.
‘But I was delighted that Will would be protected against the coronavirus.’
Will, a sixth-form student, was given the AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine on his first day volunteering at a vaccination centre after there were ‘leftover’ doses at the end of the day that would otherwise have had to be thrown away.
‘I was happy and proud to be one of the first young people to be vaccinated,’ he says.
‘But I hardly slept that night — I had a high temperature and felt shivery.
When 17-year-old Will Laird came home with a slightly sore arm after being vaccinated against Covid-19, his mother Nicky admits she felt a little envious
‘It made me feel a bit anxious but I was fine the next day,’ adds Will, who lives with his parents, 49-year-old Nicky, an art exhibition organiser, and her husband Adam, 48, who runs a software company, and brothers Alexander, 15, and Julian, 13, near Oxford.
He was among the first of a still small number of children and teenagers to be vaccinated against Covid-19 (the others received a jab because of underlying health conditions, such as diabetes or asthma, that put them at high risk if infected).
Boris Johnson yesterday announced that Covid-19 vaccinations are to be offered to those aged 23 and above.
But that could change further, as the Government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is expected to soon announce an extension in its vaccination programme to include children, after the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency ruled the Pfizer vaccine was safe for those as young as 12.
A trial of the AZ jab involving 12 to 15-year-olds is expected to report its findings later this summer. This will provide preliminary data that could form part of a package for approval. (Currently the AZ jab is recommended only for those aged 40 and over, after a small number of people suffered blood clots after vaccination.)
But as the JCVI considers future extensions of the vaccination programme — expected in August, in preparation for the new school year — vaccinating younger groups has become a contentious topic.
Partly this is because they have a small risk of becoming seriously ill; and some worry that there may be long-term risks which are currently unknown with such new vaccines.
However, others argue that children are at higher risk of complications if they are infected with coronavirus, such as long Covid, where symptoms such as fatigue and breathlessness last many months.
Also, immunising children would serve to protect other more vulnerable or older people and contribute to so-called herd immunity — the idea that when a significant proportion of the population is immune to a contagious infection, it is harder for that infection to spread.
Professor Peter Openshaw, a respiratory physician and member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), recently urged ministers to consider vaccinating school-aged children against Covid-19.
As the JCVI considers future extensions of the vaccination programme — expected in August, in preparation for the new school year — vaccinating younger groups has become a contentious topic
He said he had come ‘on balance’ to believe there was ‘a very strong case’ for vaccinating children, as there was evidence to show they are now spreading the Delta variant, first discovered in India, to a far greater extent than was the case for the original Wuhan variant.
‘A lot of people are sitting on the fence about this but I’m coming to the view that vaccination of children — there’s a very strong argument there,’ Professor Openshaw told Radio 4’s Today programme last week.
Dr Raghib Ali, a senior clinical research associate in epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, also believes vaccinating younger age groups is important.
‘It is thought that we need about 85 per cent of the community to be immunised with any vaccine for herd immunity to occur — it’s unlikely we will reach this level without extending the vaccination programme to younger people,’ says Dr Ali.
‘We know the Pfizer vaccine reduces infection rates in adults and in 12 to 15-year-olds by over 90 per cent, and also reduces transmission rates in adults — so I see no reason for this not to be the case for children aged 12 and upwards too.’
He argues that because infection rates are highest among those aged 12 to 24 (because they socialise in larger groups), they could play a major role in spreading the virus generally, particularly as this group is also less likely to experience symptoms that would alert them to the fact that they are infected.
Indeed, recent data from Public Health England shows that with most adult cases now being prevented by vaccination, children aged ten and over have been responsible for more than a quarter of recent Covid cases (according to official data for the week ending June 6).
‘This is relevant for 12 to 17-year-olds who still live at home — and particularly for families where three generations live together,’ Dr Ali told Good Health. Transmissions of this type are likely to be an important factor behind the higher death rates among ethnic minorities, he says.
Another reason to vaccinate children is to cut their risk of complications. It is becoming increasingly apparent that a large number of children with symptomatic or asymptomatic Covid-19 are experiencing long-term effects many months after the initial infection.
‘It made me feel a bit anxious but I was fine the next day,’ adds Will, who lives with his parents, 49-year-old Nicky, an art exhibition organiser, and her husband Adam, 48, who runs a software company, and brothers Alexander, 15, and Julian, 13, near Oxford
A report from the first study of long Covid in 129 children in Italy suggested that more than half of children aged between six and 16 who contract the virus have at least one symptom lasting more than 120 days, with symptoms affecting the daily activities of 42.6 per cent, reported the journal Acta Paediatrica in April.
Andrew Pollard, a professor of paediatric infection and immunity at Oxford University, says: ‘Some children with mild coronavirus symptoms develop long Covid or the newly identified inflammatory condition PIMS-TS [paediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome, temporally associated with Sars-CoV-2].’
Unlike with long Covid, in PIMS-TS many organs including the heart, lungs, brain, kidneys, skin, eyes and gut become inflamed. About 70 per cent of those affected need intensive care in hospital (in very rare cases, it can be fatal), with 250 cases reported in the UK in the first wave last year. It is thought this figure now could be as high as 1,000.
‘Helping to prevent long Covid or PIMS-TS could be something to consider when deciding whether to vaccinate younger people,’ says Professor Pollard.
However, reservations remain. Some argue that it is more valuable for the UK and other developed nations to donate vaccine doses to lower-income countries rather than start vaccinating low-risk groups such as children.
Last month, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organisation, said: ‘I understand why some countries want to vaccinate their children and adolescents, but right now I urge them to reconsider and to instead donate vaccines to COVAX [a worldwide vaccine-sharing scheme].’
Not only would this help developing countries to control Covid cases, but it could prevent more variants spreading across the world, including to the UK. ‘While vaccinating children might eventually be deemed appropriate, vaccinating older adults in other countries to prevent them from dying is a better use of the available doses, to protect them and to protect us from further spread of the virus and new variants,’ says Professor Pollard.
Like all decisions in healthcare, the step to vaccinate children will come down to the balance between risk and benefit — which isn’t clear-cut.
‘The risk-benefit balance for children is different from the one for adults as they are less likely to become severely ill with coronavirus and the risk of side-effects is greater,’ says Dr Ali.
Reported side-effects postvaccination include temporary muscle pain, headaches, nausea and fever, which are common for most vaccines.
However, rare side-effects have been observed too. For example, blood clots have been reported after the AZ vaccine; there have also been reports of rare cases of inflammation of the heart muscles in men aged 16 to 30 following the Pfizer vaccine.
And an analysis of data from people at low risk of serious Covid by the University of Cambridge concludes that 20 to 29-year-olds are more likely to suffer a blood clot due to the AZ vaccine than to be prevented by vaccination from ending up in intensive care — although the opposite is true for those aged 30 to 39.
While experts agree that vaccination is highly effective at reducing the risk of hospital treatment or death from coronavirus, this is less relevant for younger people, who generally get mild symptoms.
Furthermore, while research shows that vaccinating young people against flu, for instance, can significantly reduce the likelihood of them passing it on to their parents and grandparents, ‘there’s so far not enough research to know whether this also holds true for Covid-19’, adds Professor Pollard.
Trials of how all the major vaccines affect younger people are continuing. The AZ trial in children involves those as young as six, while Pfizer has announced it is studying the effects of its vaccine on babies from six months.
For the Lairds, there is no doubt that Will’s vaccination brought them a sense of relief.
‘If our younger sons are offered the vaccine, I’ll be very quick to ensure they get it,’ says Nicky.
‘We’ve always ensured our children have all the childhood vaccinations recommended by our GP — and have even paid privately for jabs such as HPV (to protect against certain viruses linked to the transmission of cervical cancer) or the meningitis ACWY vaccine if our children didn’t qualify for these on the NHS.
‘So getting the coronavirus vaccination is just as important to ensure we stay healthy as a family but also that we don’t pass it on to someone else.’
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