Why should we vaccinate our children? Because they are people too

Children deserve for their health and wellbeing to be taken into account

The Government’s belated recognition that children are part of the herd, and so must be part of the solution, is welcome and overdue. But why has it taken so long? Photograph: iStock

The Government’s belated recognition that children are part of the herd, and so must be part of the solution, is welcome and overdue. But why has it taken so long? Photograph: iStock

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The National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) has made the recommendation to extend the vaccination programme to all children between the ages of 12 and 15.

According to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, vaccinating 12-15 year olds “extends the vaccine shield to a much younger cohort and that’s all part of trying to constrain and limit the threat of a new variant”.

He added that Niac’s decision “gives us a lot more confidence as well about opening up society and removing the remaining restrictions”.

Niac’s recommendation follows HSE chief clinical officer Dr Colm Henry’s comments that to achieve herd immunity by vaccination alone, “it would infer we would need to include age groups going right down to children.”

There is a more alarming dimension to the airbrushing of children from the statistics and the associated public discourse

The Government’s belated recognition that children are part of the herd, and so must be part of the solution, is welcome and overdue. But why has it taken so long?

A clue lies in the vaccination statistics and how they are used. Reports about the progress of the vaccination campaign often use “percentage of adult population” and “percentage of population” interchangeably.

Even the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, has been known to switch between these two formulations. During a NewsTalk interview, the Taoiseach referred to a 70 per vaccination rate, without qualifying that he was talking about the adult population; while the headline chosen for that interview was: “Micheál Martin: 70 per cent of people to be fully vaccinated by end of July.”

It is an easy mistake to make, but it does raise the question: is forgetting the adult in “percentage of population vaccinated” a slip of the tongue or a sign of something more concerning?

Consequences

Even if it is merely a slip, the political consequences can be embarrassing. It is a short step from deleting the word “adult” for the sake of brevity to giving the impression that policy is based on the misconception that children are not “people”.

This is a lesson Germany’s minister for foreign affairs Heiko Maas has learned to his cost. Maas claimed recently that, since every human being in Germany would have a vaccination offer by August, there would no longer be any legal or political justification for any Covid-related restrictions. He had simply forgotten that “every human being” includes children; that children are people too.

Perhaps, similar to the NewsTalk headline above, German headlines had dropped the “adult” qualifier and lulled Maas into implying that children are not “human beings” and as such do not deserve the restrictions necessary to protect them from the worst effects of Covid-19. Embarrassing for Maas, but perhaps forgivable.

On the face of it, Boris Johnson’s ‘if not now, when?’ policy decision implies an acceptance of children contracting Covid-19. Photograph: Yui Mok/Pool/ Getty Images
On the face of it, Boris Johnson’s ‘if not now, when?’ policy decision implies an acceptance of children contracting Covid-19. Photograph: Yui Mok/Pool/ Getty Images

But there is a more alarming dimension to the airbrushing of children from the statistics and the associated public discourse. It potentially prepares the ground for a policy of “letting it rip” among children, in conjunction with vaccination of the adult population, to acquire the much-hoped-for herd immunity and thus a return to normal.

This would seem to be the approach in the UK. It is, of course, difficult to guess at the genuine motivations of a politician; this is particularly true in the case of the British prime minister. Yet, one can infer a lot from policy decisions and actions.

A recent letter in the Lancet, written by international health leaders and members of the independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), labelled England’s so called “freedom day” as “dangerous and premature”.

Mitigation measures

The letter outlined mitigating measures which the UK government could use to protect the population. These include measures specifically targeted to protect children, and would allow for schools to reopen safely in September.

“Freedom day” represents an overthrowing of these measures, with an implicit acceptance of a surge in Covid-19 infections. The inevitable swell in transmission will result in a “reservoir of infection, which will probably accelerate spread when schools and universities reopen in autumn”.

English children are, as yet, unvaccinated. On the face of it, Boris Johnson’s “if not now, when?” policy decision implies an acceptance of children contracting Covid-19.

The mass infection of children with Covid-19 will bring England closer and closer to herd immunity. Why include children in vaccination statistics and debates when the aim is to let them contract the virus?

Given the recent move to vaccinate children in Ireland, Irish politicians may avoid Heiko Maas’s embarrassment. Moreover, it would seem that Irish policy decisions around vaccinating children may contribute to avoiding the “unethical and illogical” attitude to mass infection that England’s “freedom day” represents.

Niac’s recommendation is a timely reminder that children are people too and deserve for their health and wellbeing to be explicitly taken into account in policy decisions that affect them.

We should now start including children in the vaccination statistics. The truth is, they should never have been discounted.

Katy Dineen is an assistant lecturer in philosophy at UCC. Bengt Autzen is a lecturer in philosophy and directs the MA in Health and Society at UCC

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