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Why are 12 to 15-year-olds being offered a COVID vaccine – and what are other countries doing?

Children aged between 12 and 15 should be offered one dose of a COVID vaccine, the government’s top medical advisers have recommended.

Professor Chris Whitty and the chief medical officers (CMOs) of the devolved nations said children in this age group should be given the chance to have a single Pfizer shot to help reduce transmission and disruption in schools.

It comes after the government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommended that only children who are most clinically vulnerable to COVID should get jabbed.

The CMOs believe one jab will have a “marked effect” on classroom absences and community transmission, and the rollout will begin “as soon as possible” – hopefully in schools.

Here is everything you need to know about vaccinating children against COVID-19.

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Should children get COVID jabs?

What are the arguments in favour of vaccinating children?

All 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK – along with children aged 12 to 15 with serious underlying health conditions or those who live with someone deemed high risk – have already been offered a vaccine.

While it did not recommend a universal rollout to all 12 to 15-year-olds, the JCVI asked the chief medical officers of all four nations to look at the issue from a wider, educational and public health perspective.

Chair of the JCVI, Professor Wei Shen Lim, told a Downing Street news briefing that the negative impact of the pandemic on children is not just as a result of direct COVID infection.

“Missing school has had a particularly profound impact on our children,” he said.

Professor Whitty added that education disruption over the past 18 months has been “extraordinarily difficult” for the educational attainment and mental health of young people and the wider public health of their families and teachers.

He and his colleagues concluded, therefore, that offering a single vaccine dose to children in this age group “will reduce educational disruption”.

Dr June Raine, chief executive of the UK regulator the MHRA, said that trials involving 2,000 12 to 15-year-olds showed “very high levels of short term efficacy” and that vaccines provided protection “even before dose two”, which is “extremely positive”.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson previously said he felt parents would find it “deeply reassuring” to have a choice of whether their children should have a jab or not.

A study carried out by Dr David Strain, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School, and other experts also found that giving the jab to teenagers and children “has the potential to play a vital role” in reducing coronavirus infections and deaths.

The study, which has not been peer reviewed and was funded by Moderna, predicted that vaccinating all 12 to 15-year-olds in the UK could reduce all COVID-related deaths by 18% and reduce hospital cases by 21% up to December.

Dr Strain said: “The majority of lives saved would be in the parent and grandparent age.

“That’s the ethical argument. We’d be predominantly vaccinating children to save the lives of their parents and grandparents.”

What are the arguments against vaccinating children?

The JCVI decided against backing a mass rollout of the vaccine amongst children on health grounds alone.

It said the health benefits of a vaccination for 12 to 15-year-olds are “marginally greater than the potential known harms” of contracting COVID-19 and not great enough to support mass inoculation.

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What’s behind the JCVI’s decision?

Younger age groups are much less likely to suffer severe illness and death as a result of the virus.

The committee also said it had investigated the extremely rare events of inflammation of the heart muscle, known as myocarditis, after Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

While the condition can result in short periods of hospital observation, followed by typically swift recoveries, the JCVI concluded the medium to long-term outcomes are still uncertain and more follow-up time is needed to gain a clearer understanding.

It added: “The potential risks from vaccination are also small, with reports of post-vaccination myocarditis being very rare, but potentially serious and still in the process of being described.

“Given the rarity of these events and the limited follow-up time of children and young people with post-vaccination myocarditis, substantial uncertainty remains regarding the health risks associated with these adverse events.

“Overall, the committee is of the opinion that the benefits from vaccination are marginally greater than the potential known harms, but acknowledges that there is considerable uncertainty regarding the magnitude of the potential harms.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has argued that although children at higher risk of severe COVID-19 should get vaccinated, those who are healthy are not a priority.

It has advised that it is “less urgent” to vaccinate adolescents and children than older people, those with chronic health conditions, and health workers.

It has also said “more evidence is needed on the use of the different COVID-19 vaccines in children to be able to make general recommendations” on inoculating children.

What are other countries doing?

The UK remains one of the few countries not to have already offered coronavirus vaccines to 12 to 15-year-olds.

In Europe, at least 29 countries have started vaccinating children aged 12 and over or are planning to do so in the near future

Outside Europe, Singapore, Japan, the UAE, Israel, the US, China, Canada, and the Philippines have also decided to give jabs to all those aged 12 and over.

In the US, 7,621,760 people aged 12 to 15 have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Australia plans to open vaccinations to all children in that age category from 13 September.

No country has started vaccinating children under 12.

What is the risk of long COVID in children?

According to preliminary findings from the world’s largest study on long COVID, up to one in seven children and young people who caught COVID may have symptoms linked to the virus 15 weeks later.

The study, conducted by University College London and Public Health England researchers, surveyed 3,065 11 to 17-year-olds in England who had positive results in a PCR test between January and March as well as a matched control group of 3,739 11 to 17-year-olds who tested negative over the same period.

They found that, when surveyed at an average of 15 weeks after their test, 14% more young people in the test positive group had three or more symptoms of ill health, including unusual tiredness and headaches.

The study’s lead author, Professor Sir Terence Stephenson, said there was “consistent evidence that some teenagers will have persisting symptoms” after contracting COVID.

What about permission from parents?

The chief medical officers have stressed that the decision on 12 to 15-year-olds is about the “offer of a vaccine” not making it mandatory.

Government advisers have said if your child is offered a vaccination at school, a consent form may be handed out to give your permission.

Parental consent will not be needed if the child is considered competent to make a decision by themselves.

Professor Whitty said: “We want to make sure children, young people and their parents are supported in their decisions and that there is no stigmatisation of people who do or don’t take the vaccination.”

How many children have tested positive for COVID?

Although the specific data around the number of children that have tested positive is not easily accessible, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) member Professor John Edmunds said it “probably around half of them”.

He said: “In the UK now it’s difficult to say how many children haven’t been infected, but it’s probably about half of them, that’s about six million children, so that’s a long way to go if we allow infection just to run through the population, that’s a lot of children who will be infected and that will be a lot of disruption to schools in the coming months.”

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Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “I think we have to take into consideration the wider effect COVID might have on children and their education and developmental achievements.”

The vaccination programme has so far provided protection to over 48 million people over the age of 16 across the UK – including over 48 million first doses and over 43 million second doses.

The latest data from Public Health England and Cambridge University shows vaccines have saved more than 105,000 lives and prevented 143,600 hospitalisations and 24 million cases in England.

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