Children aged 12-15 in Northern Ireland now eligible for a vaccine

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Children aged 12 to 15 should be offered a first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the UK’s four chief medical officers (CMOs) have said.

he move means children aged 12-15 in Northern Ireland will now be eligible for a vaccine.

The decision takes into account the impact of the pandemic on children’s education as well as the risks to their mental health from missing school.

The move means that around three million children in the UK could be eligible for the jab and comes despite the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) deciding not to recommend mass vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds.

It is expected the vaccinations will be given through schools as soon as possible.

The JCVI said Covid-19 presents a very low risk for healthy children and vaccination would only offer a marginal benefit.

But they suggested that the wider issues, such as education, should be taken into consideration and examined by CMOs.

In their advice to the Government, the UK’s CMOs said they were recommending vaccines on “public health grounds” and it was “likely vaccination will help reduce transmission of Covid-19 in schools”.

They added: “Covid-19 is a disease which can be very effectively transmitted by mass spreading events, especially with the Delta variant.

“Having a significant proportion of pupils vaccinated is likely to reduce the probability of such events which are likely to cause local outbreaks in, or associated with, schools.

“They will also reduce the chance an individual child gets Covid-19. This means vaccination is likely to reduce (but not eliminate) education disruption.”

The CMOs have asked the JCVI now to look at whether second doses should be given to children and young people aged 12 to 15 once more data comes through internationally.

This will not be before the spring term.

The CMOs think a single dose will significantly reduce the chance of a young person getting Covid and passing the virus on.

Clinical evidence shows that a single dose of Pfizer cuts the risk of catching the Delta variant of Covid-19 by 55% and has a much higher effect on preventing severe illness and death. It also cuts transmission.

After seeking advice from a range of experts, including the Royal College of GPs and the Royal College of Paediatrics, the CMOs said they consider education “one of the most important drivers of improved public health and mental health”.

They added: “The effects of disrupted education, or uncertainty, on mental health are well recognised.

“There can be lifelong effects on health if extended disruption to education leads to reduced life chances.

“Whilst full closures of schools due to lockdowns is much less likely to be necessary in the next stages of the Covid-19 epidemic, UK CMOs expect the epidemic to continue to be prolonged and unpredictable.

“Local surges of infection, including in schools, should be anticipated for some time. Where they occur, they are likely to be disruptive.”

The NHS in England had already been asked to prepare to roll out vaccines for all 12 to 15-year-olds in the event that the CMOs recommend the programme.

The JCVI has already recommended that children and young people aged 12 to 17 with specific underlying health conditions, and children and young people who are aged 12 years and over who are household contacts of people who are immunocompromised are offered two doses of a vaccine.

The JCVI has also investigated the extremely rare events of inflammation of the heart muscle, known as myocarditis, after Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.

While the condition can result in short periods of hospital observation, followed by typically swift recoveries, the JCVI has concluded the medium to long-term outcomes are still uncertain and more follow-up time is needed to get a clearer picture.

The UK’s CMOs – Professor Chris Whitty in England, Dr Frank Atherton in Wales, Dr Michael McBride in Northern Ireland and Dr Gregor Smith in Scotland – said myocarditis can also be caused by Covid-19 and resolves itself in most cases.

One paper from the US has found that young men with Covid are up to six times more likely to develop myocarditis as those who have received the vaccine.

Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said: “Health ministers are now considering this advice and we will make a decision as soon as possible.”

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