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US tries to persuade sceptical parents as it rolls out vaccines for kids

When US public health officials recommended the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine for children aged five to 11 years this week, it represented a global first in the battle against a pandemic that has claimed more than 5m lives so far.

But the Biden administration’s plan for a speedy roll out of the jab to 28m young children now faces a big challenge — high levels of vaccine hesitancy among parents and politicisation of the nation’s Covid-19 strategy.

Just over a quarter of parents say they are eager to get their children vaccinated as soon as possible, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, while the remainder are either opposed to jabs or would prefer to wait and see how the roll out progresses.

Even some parents who have been vaccinated are opposed to inoculating their five to 11 year olds due to concerns about side effects or other objections.

Narika Davis

Narika Davis, a speech therapist from Tennessee, has been vaccinated against Covid-19 along with her husband, because as frontline workers who could be exposed to the virus they wanted to protect their families. But they have decided, for now, not to have their children inoculated as part of what she describes as a nationwide “experiment”.

“This is a new vaccine that has come out and we just feel there isn’t a lot of data yet,” said Davis, who has a four-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter.

The US is the first country in the world to authorise the BioNTech/ Pfizer jab for use in younger children, although a handful of other countries such as China and Cuba have begun vaccinating people aged under 12 with domestically-developed vaccines.

Other governments are expected to follow suit if the Biden administration delivers on its promise of a faster return to normality in the US, where children account for a quarter of all new Covid cases.

Many health experts say vaccinating young children can better protect them from serious illness while helping to reduce transmission of the virus to teachers, parents and the wider community. The benefits of the Covid-19 vaccines outweigh the potential risks of rare side effects, such as the heart condition myocarditis, they argue.

“We need to get the kids vaccinated to break the transmission chain,” said Eric Topol, director of the California-based Scripps Research Translational Institute. “We can see from recent UK and US data that kids really drove the recent surge with the Delta variant.”

He said data showed the vaccines were safe for children and that while rare side effects could not be ruled out, regulators did not have the convenience of waiting for additional data during a crisis.

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The BioNTech/Pfizer jab will be dispensed in “kid-sized” doses, a third of the size of those for people aged 12 years and more. These shots are 90.7 per cent effective at preventing infection with Covid-19 in five to 11 year olds and did not present safety concerns, according to a clinical trial of just under 2,300 participants reviewed by regulators.

However, the low number of deaths among young children — 172 kids aged between five and 11 years in the US — will probably prompt some parents to ask whether a jab is necessary, experts said.

“Parents are more cautious when it comes to vaccinating their children than they were when making that choice for themselves,” said Lunna Lopes, survey analyst at Kaiser Family Foundation. “There is the risk calculation for how dangerous the virus is for children versus concerns the parents have around side effects.”

Some experts warn parents are being influenced by aggressive anti-vaccination campaigns espousing spurious claims about Covid-19 jabs. Two-thirds of parents, for example, told Kaiser researchers they were worried the jabs would affect their child’s fertility, a claim that has been discredited by experts.

Nancy Jecker, professor at University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, said anti-vaxxers who were already gaining influence in the US before the pandemic had used the Covid-19 crisis to expand their reach.

“The fear they sow is bound to impact parents’ thinking about vaccinating their children, and intrude in conversations between parents and their providers,” she said. “Anti-vaxxers have also manoeuvred themselves into political debates here, especially among conservative groups.”

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Parental concerns about vaccinating their children increased significantly between June and September, according to a recent report by Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern universities.

Among those more likely to express serious concerns were “younger mothers, parents of younger children, parents of children who have not yet been vaccinated, Republicans and independents, Hispanic and black parents, the non-college educated and rural residents”, according to the report, which found hesitancy jumping by as much as 15 percentage points for some of these groups.

The politicisation of Covid-19 policies may also be influencing parents. Several Republican governors are campaigning against vaccine mandates imposed by the Biden administration. California’s Democratic governor Gavin Newsom has also generated controversy by proposing the first vaccine mandate for schoolchildren, which would exclude unvaccinated students from in-person teaching when the Covid jab is fully approved by regulators.

Last week the Capstrano Unified School District Board of Trustees in Orange Country, California, voted to adopt a resolution requesting Newsom to reconsider or rescind the vaccine mandate for children after a lively debate among parents.

“I’m pro-vaccine, my wife is pro-vaccine, we’re both vaccinated, but I’m not in favour of forcing our kids and my neighbour’s kids to get a vaccine just so they can receive a public education,” Mike McDermott, a father of two, told the board meeting on October 20.

Even though vaccine mandates already exist for measles and other diseases, many health experts warn proposing mandates for Covid jabs could prove counterproductive.

“We don’t want to add to controversy right now, and that’s what mandates appear to do. They tend to stir up antagonism,” Topol said. “I think it’s best to build confidence with parents who are hesitant with data . . . Once the vaccines are out there and children are doing exceedingly well I think hesitancy will start to dissolve.”

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