Fifty kids a week in hospital with Covid as experts warn restricting jabs is ‘gamble’

FIFTY children and teens are being admitted to hospital with Covid a week as scientists say restricting vaccines is a “gamble”.

Ministers were advised by an expert panel yesterday to only give Covid jabs to vulnerable children and those who will be 18 in three months time.

It suggests The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) does not believe the vaccines have more benefit than risk to those under 18 years old, despite medicine regulators giving the green light for those over the age of 12. 

Prof Anthony Harnden, Deputy Chair of the JCVI, said because kids tend to get mild Covid, "the health benefits of vaccinating them are small”.

While some agreed with the decision, there was resounding disappointment among scientists who picked out a number of faults from the guidance. 

Dr Brian Ferguson, Division of Immunology, University of Cambridge, said although the JCVI’s report was “balanced”, it was “a gamble to delay vaccinating teenagers in the UK, and one that might not pay off well”.

He said the JCVI’s analysis was “dismissive of the threats to children of severe disease, death” and long Covid, pointing to NHS England data of hospital admission.

It shows that in the week to June 30 – the most up to date statistics – 57 children aged between 0 and 18 years old were admitted to England’s hospitals with Covid.

The figure is up from 24 in the week to June 2, and it’s likely higher now since the third wave has only gotten larger.

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Dr Stephen Griffin, Associate Professor in the School of Medicine, University of Leeds, said: “Something like 8-10 per cent of hospital admissions on the JCVI dashboard are in under 18s.  

“A small percentage of a very large number is still a large number.”

Dr Ferguson added: “It is likely that a small number of these children will die, as in previous waves.”

Fewer than 30 children have died from the virus in the UK as of March 2021.

Almost all children and young people are at very low risk from Covid and symptoms are typically mild.

Long Covid 

But some will get long Covid, the persistent symptoms that plague survivors of the virus for up to months.

Dr Penny Ward, visiting professor in pharmaceutical medicine, King's College London, said: “The JCVI has emphasised hospitalisation and death as benefits overlooking the, apparently less serious but potentially significantly disabling, potential for post covid syndrome.

“As the disease is now more prevalent in the young, [it] may soon affect almost as many Covid affected children as adults.”

Dr Jeremy Rossman, a senior lecturer in virology, University of Kent, said: “The JCVI recommendation ignores the prevalence of long-term effects of Covid-19 illness in children.  

“According to ONS data, over eight per cent of children aged 12-16 that have been infected with Covid-19 have persistent symptoms for at least 12 weeks. 

“This prevalence increases with age, putting 17-18 year olds at even greater risk. Long Covid is a debilitating illness that could have long term impacts on the health and wellbeing of children.”

Which kids will get a Covid vaccine?

  • children and young people aged 12 years and over with specific underlying health conditions that put them at risk of serious Covid-19
  • children and young people aged 12 years and over who are household contacts of persons (adults or children) who are immunosuppressed
  • it is considered reasonable to allow a lead-in time to offer vaccination to those children who are within three months of their 18th birthday to ensure good uptake of vaccine in newly-turned 18 year olds

“Worrying” decision amid mass infection

As the Pfizer vaccine has been shown to be 100 per cent effective in teens, Dr Rossman said “withholding it puts many children at risk of long term disease, especially given the high rate of Delta variant transmission in the UK and the current lifting of all restrictions”.

The Delta Covid variant is fuelling the third wave with an average of 38,000 cases being diagnosed across the UK each day. 

Case rates are highest in those in their teenage years and 20s. 

Dr Griffin said he was “fundamentally against the widespread levels of infection that we are now seemingly tolerating”.

He said: “It is great to hear that vulnerable teenagers will get the vaccine, as will children living with vulnerable adults.

“But in my view this doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.”

Prof Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology, Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, said: “This is a worrying decision at a time when we are now relying on vaccination and personal responsibility, as opposed to mandated restrictions, to get us through the pandemic.

“In the current situation where we in England are allowing mass infection and therefore depending on the development of herd immunity, this is a disturbing approach that will only add more ‘fuel to the flame’."

‘Ignored’ benefits

Experts have pointed to a number of benefits that would be afforded to teenagers if they were vaccinated unrelated to the virus itself.

For example, it could stop disruption to education after more than one million children in England were out of school last week due to Covid-19 related reasons. 

Dr Peter English, former editor of Vaccines in Practice and Immediate past Chair of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee, said jabbing youngsters would end the pandemic sooner, including cutting the risk of cases in adults around them.

“It would appear that none of these issues have been considered in this guidance; and I strongly suspect that it because the government told them not to consider them”, he said. 

Some also questioned how the JCVI had come to its decision that the risk of heart inflammation – myocarditis and pericarditis – after the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines was high in young people. 

It said: “At this time JCVI does not consider that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the potential risks."

Dr Griffin said: “I do not understand how safety concerns outweigh benefit.

“The MHRA and other agencies have approved RNA vaccines for use in adolescents, but, critically, there is now ample real world data – millions of children – in the USA, Israel and elsewhere that have received these vaccines.

“Of course we must consider the possibility of myocarditis etc., but both the danger and incidence of this appears extremely low.”

The JCVI said it would be keeping its advice under review and more data becomes available.

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