What every skeptical parent needs to know about vaccinating their children against Covid

Now, children under 12 remain exempt from vaccine requirements for travel to Europe, though changes can happen swiftly, and some countries – like France – still require negative tests for the unvaccinated over 12s. Potential aggravation still await in America, where parents may be required to attest that their unvaccinated children “will take a test three to five days [after arrival] and will self-isolate should any symptoms develop or if they test positive”.

Then there is long Covid. About two million people – more than three per cent of the population – self-report symptoms continuing for more than four weeks, with some 600,000 doing so in the Omicron period. “Sadly, this also applies to tens of thousands of children, for whom the vaccine program has faltered,” says Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds.

Yet vaccination of five to 11-year-olds, as the JCVI itself points out, is “not expected to have an impact on the current wave of Omicron infection”. This may be because current vaccines are poorly targeted at BA.5. (Worse, updated Omicron-specific vaccines have been developed against the BA.1 variant and may be old hat even before they get rolled out later this year. “BA.1 is yesterday’s news,” says John Beigel, at the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was quoted as saying in Nature). Nor does natural infection with Omicron prevent swift reinfection with the same strain, according to a new paper from Imperial College.

“Not only can it break through vaccine defences, [Omicron] looks to leave very few of the hallmarks we’d expect on the immune system – it’s more stealthy than previous variants and flies under the radar, so the immune system is unable to remember it,” says Prof Danny Altmann, of Imperial’s Department of Immunology and Inflammation.

Even officially, the key reason left to vaccinate children, then, is the unknown. The JCVI happily concedes that long Covid aside, the disease as we know it presents only miniscule dangers to children. But it cannot be sure about future strains.

Vaccination is a guard against the catastrophic day that this virus, which we have watched mutate all too readily, turns nasty on the young, too. Then, vaccination will ensure that it is they who will also be shielded, like adults today, from severe illness and death (if not infection itself) as a potentially awful new strain emerges. “The more severe a future wave, the greater the likely benefits from vaccination [of children],” the JCVI points out.

Of course, such a black day hopefully may never occur. And in the meantime, researchers are busily developing new vaccines with broader protection against multiple Covid strains, and new delivery mechanisms – such as nasal sprays to the respiratory tract which might better prevent transmission. But hesitant parents weighing up vaccination for their children now have another question to ask: What if Covid goes rogue? “We do not see multiple waves for other viruses on this scale,” says Griffin. “The idea that this race has been run… is nonsense.”

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