EXPLAINER

Children can catch COVID-19, so should kids get the coronavirus vaccine?

The early view that children couldn't catch COVID-19 has since changed. Picture: Shutterstock
The early view that children couldn't catch COVID-19 has since changed. Picture: Shutterstock

Children, including very young children, can develop COVID-19. Many of them have no symptoms.

Harvard Medical School

In the early stages of the pandemic, the general view - not least among young people themselves - was that they wouldn't catch COVID-19.

That has now changed.

According to the journal of Harvard Medical School: "Children, including very young children, can develop COVID-19. Many of them have no symptoms. Those that do get sick tend to experience milder symptoms such as low-grade fever, fatigue, and cough.

"Some children have had severe complications, but this has been less common. Children with underlying health conditions may be at increased risk for severe illness."

In very rare cases, "a potentially severe and dangerous complication can occur in children".

"It can lead to life-threatening problems with the heart and other organs in the body. In this condition, different body parts, such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs, can become inflamed."

Among the symptoms are a fever, bloodshot eyes, vomiting and a very red tongue and lips. Other illnesses can also have these symptoms.

But these cases are very rare

"Infections in children are uncommon, and even if a child does get infected it is only very, very mild. There have been almost no deaths of children from COVID-19 reported," Professor Adrian Esterman, who chairs the Biostatistics and Epidemiology department at the University of South Australia, told this paper.

This situation may change, of course. There are indications that new variants of the virus affect different age groups in different ways from previous variants.

So should your child be vaccinated?

Your child cannot be vaccinated under current rules in Australia. Only people aged over 16 can.

But the Australian rules may change as the rollout of the vaccines gets to younger groups. If and when they do, there is a case for getting children vaccinated, not so much to protect them from harm but to protect others from being infected by them even when their own symptoms are mild.

"Children can pass the infection on to their family members who may be at much higher risk. Also, if we want to try and reach herd immunity, we will need to vaccinate children," Professor Esterman said.

Herd immunity is when so many people have been vaccinated that the virus barely gets passed around, and if it does most people are protected from its worst effects.

"Another reason to consider a COVID-19 vaccine for your child is to protect the health of the broader community," according to two children's doctors at John Hopkins University in the United States.

"Each child or adult infected with the coronavirus provides a chance for the virus to mutate and create a variant that might prove more dangerous or resistant to the available vaccines and therapies.

"Fewer overall infections among the population means less chance of dangerous coronavirus variants," Anna Sick-Samuels and Allison Messina of the Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital said.

The Australian rules

The Therapeutic Goods Administration has not approved the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines for children. Because the vaccines are new, there is not yet enough information available.

"This is because there are limited clinical trial results showing that the vaccines are effective and safe in these age groups. There are plans for clinical trials with children underway. To date there is no evidence to indicate that in the future children should not be able to receive both of these vaccines," according to the Department of Health.

Professor Esterman reckons that Australian children will start being vaccinated next year. "I am fairly sure that as soon as enough Pfizer or Moderna vaccine is available, and all adults who want it are vaccinated, they will then offer it to children. We are probably talking about the first half of next year."

Collateral damage

One study says that adults, fearful of infection, have stayed away from clinics so their children have missed treatment for other ailments, including vaccinations.

"This is likely to cause avoidable deaths and illness in the short and long term, a form of collateral damage from the COVID-19 emergency," the British researchers say.

In addition, "the closure of schools and confinement to home has multiple impacts on children in terms of education, social isolation, wellbeing and child protection". This hits children in poorer families harder than better-off ones.

What about elsewhere?

In the United States, children aged between 12 and 15 are being vaccinated, with younger ages expected to be eligible next year.

In Britain where nearly two thirds of adults are fully vaccinated, there is an upsurge of cases mainly in unvaccinated children and young adults.

All the same, young children there are not being vaccinated. The government is considering jabs for 12 to 17 year-olds but not those who are younger.

Don't panic - do listen to advice

A study across seven countries, published in the highly-respected medical journal The Lancet, estimated that fewer than two out of every million children have died with Covid during the pandemic.

But there are caveats. The virus has mutated. A worsening in the harm to children seems to have happened around the beginning of the year.

Before February 2021, children seemed to be largely unaffected but since then the numbers of the infected young rose, albeit to nowhere near the numbers of infected adults.

This story Should our children get the Covid jab? first appeared on The Canberra Times.