The case for vaccinating children and teenagers

By Stuff reporter

The Whole Truth: Covid-19 Vaccination | By Stuff reporter Hannah Martin. 

Those aged 12 to 15 are now able to get the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in New Zealand. They can hitch onto an existing booking with their parent or guardian from August 20, or make a booking of their own from September 1. 

Medsafe, the country’s medicines regulator, in June granted the vaccine provisional approval for use in children as young as 12. But the decision on when and how to incorporate this age group into the roll out had to come from Cabinet, with advice from the Ministry of Health. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the Government’s approval on August 19, a few weeks behind our counterparts in Australia, Canada, the United States and Europe. In the United States alone, just under 7 million children aged between 12 and 15 have had at least one vaccine dose. 

In March, Pfizer released data from phase three clinical trials showing the vaccine was very protective against Covid-19 in this age group. Trials in younger children are wrapping up now, and experts expect we’ll be vaccinating from the age of six months by the end of the year.

Pfizer has reported that side effects of the shots appear to be similar in children and adults; pain at the injection site, achy muscles or joints, and fatigue. These generally clear up within 48 hours. 

Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) has been identified as a very rare side effect. In most cases, it’s mild and resolves quickly. 

Nearly two years into the pandemic, we know that compared to adults, children and young people account for a lower proportion of Covid-19 infections. And when children do get Covid-19, they tend to have less severe disease - with symptoms including low-grade fever, fatigue and cough - or no symptoms at all. 

But that’s not to say children are immune to the virus. Some can get sick and have complications or long-lasting symptoms that affect their health and wellbeing. In particular, there’s concerning evidence about the impacts of Covid-19 infection on developing brains.

“We’ve been neglecting younger people in this pandemic,” says vaccinologist and associate professor in the Department of General Practice and Primary Health Care, Dr Helen Petousis-Harris.

“There have been many serious cases and even deaths from Covid-19 among younger people.”

As of May, an estimated 12.2 million child cases (0-19 years) had been reported in a sample of 101 countries collecting age data. 

Similarly to adults, children with underlying health conditions may be at increased risk for severe illness if they get the virus.

In New Zealand, there have been 413 cases of Covid-19 in those aged 0-19 since the pandemic began - 14 per cent of the country’s total case tally. This is higher than the number of cases recorded in people aged over 60. 

One child aged between 0-9 was hospitalised in New Zealand due to Covid-19, and three between 10-19.

There are around 265,000 people aged between 12 and 15 in New Zealand. Vaccinating them will help slow the spread of the virus through our communities and reduce the potential for new variants of the virus to emerge. 

Given Māori and Pacific populations have a much younger age structure, lowering the eligible age for vaccination will help protect those communities, says Dr Rawiri Jansen, clinical director at National Hauora Coalition. 

New Zealand has ordered more than enough Pfizer doses for everyone already eligible, along with this new group, according to the Ministry of Health.

Reporting disclosure statement: Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccinologist from the University of Auckland’s department of general practice and primary health care, provided expert advice for this post, as did Medsafe. It was reviewed by The Whole Truth: Covid-19 Vaccination expert panel members Dr Rawiri Jansen and Dr Api Talemaitoga.