Like many parents of young children, I sometimes feel the only thing that has enabled me to retain some degree of emotional stability over nearly two years of uncertainty and intermittent lockdowns is the knowledge that children are unlikely to get seriously ill with Covid. But, crucially, that doesn’t mean there are no risks to children. Should the UK roll out vaccines to all five- to 11-year-olds, I would not hesitate to sign up my eldest for a jab, right after her fifth birthday. The decision would be an emotional one – I’ll remember the white-hot fear I felt in the spring of 2020, when the first reports of the fatal post-Covid condition PIMS (paediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome) reached the media. But, more than anything, my decision would be guided by the data.
In late 2021, the US administered 8.7 million Pfizer shots to children aged five to 11. Many children, of course, reported having a headache, fever or sore arm after receiving their vaccines, but serious side effects were very rare. The US authorities received 11 verified reports of myocarditis – inflammation of the heart muscle – of which seven children had fully recovered and the rest were recovering at the time the study was written up. US medical authorities also received reports of two deaths, of girls aged five and six who had complex health needs: the deaths were still under investigation (although no data suggested a causal link with the vaccine).
These risks, though low, make for grim reading – most of all for parents. But consider that by the end of 2021, 213 children aged five to 11 had died of Covid in the US. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that catching Covid raises a child’s risk of developing myocarditis by 16-fold. Meanwhile, this month England is expected to register between 2,000 and 3,000 paediatric admissions for Covid.
It’s not just about the immediate risks from Covid, either: a recent British Medical Journal study found that one in seven children may still have coronavirus symptoms 15 weeks after infection. (Other studies have estimated the rate of paediatric Long Covid to be higher still.) Long Covid can be a devastating and debilitating condition, and when children miss weeks or months or longer of school, the impact on their education and social development cannot be underestimated.
The other point to note is that, as the UK has already rolled out vaccines to children aged 12 to 18, parents have more local data to base their decisions on. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has estimated that the first million Pfizer doses given to children aged 12 to 15 prevented 131 hospital admissions and 23 cases of PIMS. The committee uses international data to estimate that the rate of myocarditis reported per million doses is between 2.6 and 17.7.
Some readers might not find this data persuasive enough. I understand why parents may still be hesitant, or may find themselves more worried by other viruses this winter; conditions such as RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and bronchiolitis have a much higher hospitalisation rate. The best any of us can do is to sift through the available data, and even when the public debate grows feverish, weigh up the risks and balances with a cool head.