Vaccinating children against Covid-19: Risks, benefits and myths

Professor of comparative immunology Cliona O’Farrelly separates fact from fiction

Misinformation is rife, adding to, but not solely responsible, for the genuine fears and concerns that parents have. Photograph: iStock

Misinformation is rife, adding to, but not solely responsible, for the genuine fears and concerns that parents have. Photograph: iStock

 

As the vaccination programme for adults continues to roll out at pace, thoughts and questions have turned to the prospect and possible need to vaccinate children. Misinformation is rife, adding to, but not solely responsible for, the genuine fears and concerns that parents have.

Professor of comparative immunology at Trinity College Dublin, Cliona O’Farrelly, separates some of the fact from the fiction when it comes to vaccinating children.

Do children need to be vaccinated against Covid-19?

“There’s many ways to approach this issue. If we want herd immunity, we’re going to have to [vaccinate children] at some stage.” Prof O’ Farrelly says. “We will have to consider it, but right at the moment, our focus should definitely be on other parts of the planet. We’ve most of our vulnerable protected now by vaccination and we’ve a much lower incidence of hospitalisation and death.

“My feeling is that we’re seeing the vaccine effect . . . Really we should be pushing for ways of making sure the rest of the world gets vaccinations because otherwise we’re going to be inundated with other variants. Because as long as there’s lots of the virus around, new variants can develop.

“The evidence is overwhelming that children get very mild disease. Just the rate of serious illness and death is really quite different in children. So to be using precious vaccines and resources for vaccinating against something that is not really causing that much of a problem is questionable. Nevertheless if we want ultimately to get rid of this virus then everybody has to be vaccinated. That would be the way to look at it - in time we should be definitely considering it.”

What about the fact that there’s no long term research on the impacts these vaccines might have on children?

“We’ve loads of data on most vaccines being brilliant for children. There are literally billions of people alive today because of vaccination, measles, mumps, rubella. We’ve got rid of smallpox. There’s no reason to believe that this one would be any different.

“The RNA that’s used disappears terribly quickly and so there is a lot of work on that with people looking for evidence. There’s no way it can get itself into the DNA, that’s simply biologically impossible.”

What about the links to narcolepsy in children that happened following vaccination against swine flu?

“Nobody can say with 100 per cent surety that something will or will not happen, no matter how much data we have. This is what parents want, and as a mother of three completely different children, I always sought, but knew was impossible,” Prof O’Farrelly says. “The data we have, as far as I’m aware, tells us that none of the 100s of millions of people who have received any of the Covid-19 vaccines suffer narcolepsy because of the vaccine. My understanding is the adjuvant that was used in that vaccine – thought to contribute to the narcolepsy – was not used in any of the SARS-Co-V2 vaccines.”

Is there any reason to fear that these vaccines might cause infertility in girls and women?

“This (rumour) came from a faulty piece of science. With the infertility issue there was a thought that there was some cross reactivity between a part of SARS-CoV-2 and the placenta but in actual fact that’s unfounded.

“There’s a huge amount of information out on the pregnancy rate in people who get the vaccine, because when you vaccinate millions of people, like as happened now, inevitably amongst them will be some people who get pregnant by mistake or who set out to get pregnant, so the data is that it’s exactly the same rate. So in other words the vaccine is having no effect on fertility.”

But what about anecdotal tales of the vaccine affecting menstrual cycles?

“I’ve heard anecdotal evidence of this. For some women, the first and second period after vaccination is either more painful or heavier, but that completely resolves. It seems to be one of the side effects, a bit like the inflammation that you feel.”

What about breastfed babies being exposed to the vaccine through breastmilk?

Referring to research carried out in this area, Prof O’Farrelly says “there’s no sign of the vaccine [in the mother’s breastmilk] but they will make their antibodies. This what’s so cool about breastfeeding mothers getting vaccinated ´– their breastmilk will have antibodies so their baby will be protected.”

So, might unborn babies receive similar protection from mothers vaccinated during pregnancy?

“There is some evidence of that alright, that the antibodies will cross the placenta and will provide protection for the foetus”

What about the link between heart inflammation in adolescent boys and the mRNA vaccines?

“My understanding is that it’s very, very rare and that it resolves.”

Are children likely to require boosters?

“Absolutely”, Prof O’Farrelly says. “Hopefully, it will happen that we will be able to design a vaccine that will work against all the variants, but that’s down the road. So at the moment, yes we’re going to be looking at getting boosters, I suspect.”

What would children remaining unvaccinated mean for schools, if teachers and staff are fully vaccinated?

“If we really want to get back to normal life and get rid of the virus, we will be looking at it [vaccinating children]. After Delta will be Epsilon – where is it, when does it arrive? We’re not safe until we’re all safe. And that means everybody on the planet, and that means all children.”

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