11 May 2022 | Science conversation
What are WHO's recommendations for COVID-19 vaccines and children? And what does the evidence say so far about the safety of these vaccines in children? And if you live in a country where this vaccination is not available for your kids, how can you keep them safe? Hello and welcome to Science in 5. I'm Vismita Gupta-Smith, we are talking to Dr Soumya Swaminathan today. Welcome, Soumya. Let's get started first with WHO's recommendations for COVID-19 vaccines for children.
Dr Soumya Swaminathan
Thank you, Vismita. This is an important topic. All parents worry about their children and about the safety and whether they should get the COVID vaccines. We know that the majority of healthy children and adolescents, even if they get COVID, luckily they don't get very sick. However, children rarely can develop severe illness from COVID and especially those children who have some underlying illnesses, like children who are obese, children who have some genetic abnormalities like Down's syndrome, children who have diabetes, severe asthma or other respiratory diseases, and children who have underlying neurological conditions, myopathies and muscle weaknesses and so on. These children are at higher risk of developing severe disease. Also, we know that a percentage of people, including children, develop symptoms after they've recovered from COVID, what is called post-COVID syndrome or long-COVID. This can be fatigue, headaches, different types of symptoms which sometimes persist for weeks or months. And the third thing that's been observed in some children, again, it's rare, but some children can get a sort of inflammatory disease, which is called MIS-C, after the acute phase of COVID infection. So it is good to protect children and WHO recommends that children above the age of five can receive COVID vaccination. So the first reason is to protect the children from getting sick and from getting this long COVID syndrome. The second reason is to reduce transmission in the community. And thirdly, the goal of vaccinating children and adolescents along with adults, is so that economies can open up, educational institutions can stay open without, you know, the risk of having to shut down repeatedly. Now, of course, when we provide guidance to countries, we do recommend that all countries start by vaccinating their highest risk groups, which are the older adults, the frontline workers, adults with co-morbidities. They're at much higher risk than children of getting severe illness. But once countries have managed to vaccinate these groups, then definitely children and adolescents can also get vaccinated.
Soumya, are there specific vaccines that are recommended for children? And what does the evidence say so far about their safety?
Dr Soumya SwaminathanSo the WHO examines the dossiers that are provided by companies and provides the emergency use listing. And at this point of time, the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine is approved for children above the age of five, and the Moderna vaccine is approved for children about the age of 12. And we are in the process of examining the dossiers and the data from other companies. However, many countries have licensed different vaccines for use in children based on their own regulatory agencies, having examined the data on safety and efficacy.
So there are a number of vaccines, mRNA but also the viral vectored vaccines like AstraZeneca and J&J and the inactivated vaccines like Sinopharm and Sinovac and also Covaxin and Novavax, etc., that have been approved in different countries for different age groups. So the best thing is to follow the countries guidelines, because all of them have looked very carefully and have made sure that the benefits of vaccination exceed the risks. And so far from the millions of children who've been vaccinated around the world, we know that the side effects are very rare. Of course, children can get some fevers, some pain at the site of injection, maybe some body ache which lasts for a day or two, just like adults do. So overall safety profile of these COVID vaccines has really been excellent.
Soumya, if one is living in a country where these vaccines are not available for children, how can we still keep our children safe?
Dr Soumya Swaminathan
So, there are many other things we can do to keep children safe, particularly the children at high risk. We can all wear masks when we are in a surrounding where we are meeting a lot of strangers from outside the family. This could be also in educational institutions. All children above the age of six should be encouraged to wear a mask when we are in these kind of crowded places. Try and do as many activities as possible outdoors with these children and focus on the home as well as the other environments like educational institutions where these children spend a lot of time by keeping doors and windows open. And if that's not possible, then making sure that everybody's wearing a mask, that adults or children who have a cough and cold stay at home for a couple of days and don't come and mix with these children. Washing hands regularly protects against COVID as well as against other infectious diseases. And also importantly, all adults who are in contact with such children. If they are vaccinated, then they are not only protecting themselves against severe disease, but also reducing the risk of spreading the infection. So it's important to remember that also, as COVID has been changing and we are seeing new variants like Omicron, that vaccines alone have not been sufficient to completely stop infections from happening. So it's always vaccines, plus all of the other measures, the personal preventive measures that we know are so effective. We need to continue to observe these for some time to come.
Thank you, Soumya. That was Science in 5 today. Until next time then, stay safe, stay healthy and stick with science.