Editorials

Vaccinating the young and small 

It was reported last week that the Ministry of Education is planning to vaccinate school children and teachers before the resumption of schools, and that an official request has been made in this connection from the Ministry of Health. 

Vaccinating school children did not receive adequate attention until recently owing to the notion that if school children do not attend schools or other educational institutes, which remained closed on and off for over a year, they are highly unlikely to contract the virus. Also, whenever that topic was discussed, people expressed mixed opinions for and against it, mostly due to lack of knowledge about the underlying reasons behind identifying ‘priority groups’. 

Even though not attending schools or other educational institutes reduces the risk of contracting the virus, we cannot rule out the fact that they can still contract the virus from adults. Even more importantly, if they are living with their extended families, which most of the time include elderly members such as grandparents who are more prone to diseases, there is a huge possibility that those adults could also contract the virus from them. 

Another reason, which was more a global reason than one specific to Sri Lanka, is that children were believed to have mild symptoms and not get seriously ill even if infected with Covid-19 due to their age. Another global reason was that the vaccine had not been sufficiently tested on children until recently, and even now only the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for children, and that too only those above 12 years of age. 

According to Ministry of Education officials, Sri Lanka has a school children population of around 4.5 million, which is roughly 25% of the total population of the country, and therefore, vaccinating school children should, theoretically, help the country reduce Covid-19 cases significantly. As a matter of fact, this group is larger than any of the priority groups the country has vaccinated so far. 

Children being able to spread the virus among their elderly family members is not the only reason that calls for more attention for school children. 

Even though various studies present different findings about children’s susceptibility to the virus, some recent studies have shown that children can be more prone to contracting newer variants of the virus, and that is another health-related reason in addition to the ones mentioned above. Also, the country needs to reopen schools, as with most schools, children’s education has been completely disrupted by the closure of schools. Due to practical reasons such as lack of resources, especially computers and smartphones, distant/online learning methods the Government proposed have been proven to be ineffective in real life, although theoretically they are ideal. That is another reason why vaccinating school children is a need of the hour. 

However, in the event the authorities decide to consider children a priority group, Sri Lanka has to pay attention to other practical concerns it entails – we have to be extremely mindful of the number of vaccines available for the overall vaccination drive targeting the general public (adults) and have to evaluate the health effects (side effects) the vaccine would have on children, especially those living with various health conditions. 

Sri Lanka just started considering vaccinating school children; however, a large number of countries have either started or given permission to start vaccinating children above the age of 12. Among these countries are Italy, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Singapore, Austria, Dubai, Japan, Canada and the Philippines. In addition, foreign media reports say that a large number of countries are considering it. Even though a small number of children showing side effects was a common occurrence in some of these countries, most of these countries are considering expanding vaccination drives to include children of age groups that were not part of the initial programme. 

Like many other countries in the world, Sri Lanka is also struggling to get enough vaccines, and according to the Government, by the end of this year, a majority of the population would be vaccinated. However, that will happen in stages, as and when the country receives the vaccine, and therefore, a strategically developed plan which focuses on more things than age and health conditions is of great importance. 

In the initial era of the pandemic, Sri Lanka employed more good plans such as impeccable monitoring and follow-up systems than mere resources, and it resulted in a decrease in Covid-19 cases and deaths. Even though that can no longer be done due to the high number of Covid-19 cases, different and newer strategies need to come into play, and handling the vaccination drive is also an activity that should be based on both the practical realities and theories.