European countries are almost evenly split on whether to administer coronavirus vaccinations to teenagers as alarm mounts on the continent about a possible fourth wave of infections.
Sixteen countries, including France and Italy, are now vaccinating children above the age of 12 or plan to do so; while 17 countries have decided against, or will only jab teenagers, if they have serious underlying health conditions.
Another four countries remain undecided.
Vaccinating children is increasingly a contentious issue in Europe — made more so by the uptick in confirmed coronavirus cases some countries are witnessing thanks to the rapid spread of the Delta variant, which was first detected in India.
The French government warned Wednesday that France is seeing the more contagious Delta variant spreading fast across the country. “The risk of a rapid fourth wave is here,” said government spokesman Gabriel Attal at a media briefing Wednesday. The Delta variant accounts for 40% of new infections in France, he said, up 20% from last week.
Eleven French regions are reporting infection rates have jumped over the past seven days, Attal said. France has been one of the hardest hit countries in Europe with more than 111,000 deaths.
Around 64% of France's adult population has received at least one vaccine dose, and just under 50% have been fully vaccinated, according to government health authorities. But the government is battling vaccine hesitancy.
Like other European countries, France has struggled to maintain a high pace of vaccinations. Last month, it made teenagers eligible for the COVID-19 vaccination, provided they have parental consent.
Risks vs Benefits
A study of seven countries published in March by The Lancet, the British medical journal, found that fewer than two out of every million children have died because of COVID. Those opposed to vaccinating teenagers argue the risks of adverse reactions outweigh the benefits.
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC, lists important considerations for national public health authorities in the EU to consider when vaccinating adolescents. It stressed that adolescents would likely experience few direct benefits from being vaccinated; although it added that inoculating youngsters could increase overall population immunity and reduce the spread of the virus.
“As vaccination rollout progresses, we are arriving at the stage where vaccination of younger age groups such as adolescents needs to be considered,” Andrea Ammon, ECDC director said in a press statement. Crucial factors guiding national health authorities should include the incidence of COVID-19 in populations, says the ECDC. Like the Word Health Organization, the ECDC says European countries should bear in mind the shortage of vaccines globally for poor and developing nations that have made little headway inoculating their adults.
WHO advises that it is more urgent to donate vaccines for developing countries to inoculate their higher-risk adults and globally it is less urgent to vaccinate teenagers and children. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus dubbed earlier this year the prioritization of low-risk groups, such as children, in rich countries a “moral catastrophe.” “I understand why some countries want to vaccinate their children and adolescents, but right now I urge them to reconsider and to instead donate vaccines,” he said.
But the emergence of the delta variant has changed the calculus for some European governments and advocates of adolescent vaccination point to the delta’s strains higher rates of transmissibility. That is making it more difficult for Europe to reach herd immunity when enough people in a population acquire immunity either through vaccination or previous infection.
Epidemiologists now estimate 80% of a population needs to be vaccinated for herd immunity to be assured.
Nonetheless, some European medical experts point to safety concerns, advising that more studies need to be done to ascertain the risks of inoculation for youngsters. Calum Semple, a professor of child health at Britain’s University of Liverpool and a British government adviser, told local media he is not persuaded the evidence is strong enough to support vaccination of teenagers as the risk to them from the virus was incredibly low, and “because we don’t have complete safety data for the vaccines.”
So far, Britain, like Germany, is vaccinating teenagers, if they have serious health conditions. The government has delayed making a decision on whether all teenagers should be encouraged to have jabs. Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, which advises Downing Street, is due to report soon on whether under-18s should receive jabs, but it reportedly is veering against the idea, fearing even very rare side-effects.
But British parents, according to recent opinion polls, overwhelmingly want vaccinations for their kids, hoping that will halt disruptions to schooling. The Office for National Statistics, a government agency, found in a survey that nine in ten parents would definitely or probably vaccinate their children if the jabs were available to them. Only 4% of parents of elementary school-aged children and 3% of parents with kids in high school would not.