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Paul Vallely: Vaccines and teens: a balancing act

10 September 2021

It is more than simply a scientific question, declares Paul Vallely


SHOULD young teenagers be given the Covid vaccine? The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has advised against a mass rollout of the vaccine among 12- to 15-year-olds, arguing that the benefit to their health is only marginal, and the risk of severe Covid illness and death in children is extremely low. There is, however, more to this than science.

The issue is a moral minefield, which involves risk-benefit analysis, balancing the benefit to the individual and the community, and negotiating delicate issues of consent. Should we vaccinate children for the greater good? If benefit accrues primarily to adults, thanks to improved herd immunity, isn’t there a conflict of interest for parents?

According to John Stuart Mill, the sole ground for impinging on individuals’ rights is when they risk harming others. We make common-sense judgements on proportion in such matters. If no one were allowed to drive a car, no one would be killed in road accidents. But banning cars is seen as too extreme on a risk-benefit calculus. What about infecting others with the coronavirus?

It has been argued that it is wrong to make public policy on any basis other than what is in the interests of children themselves. But has the JCVI been too scientifically narrow in its definition? The interests of children are wider than their health — both in terms of the common good and individual good.

The benefits of the vaccine may be marginal, but they outweigh the risks. Millions of children have been vaccinated in other countries for months without widespread serious side-effects. And teenagers have been shown to be significant vectors of the disease. A University of Exeter study — admittedly funded by the vaccine manufacturer Moderna — suggests that vaccinating all 12- to 15-year-olds could reduce Covid deaths by 18 per cent by December.

Moreover, vaccinating teenagers this term would reduce the kind of outbreaks in schools which last year meant that children were sent home on a scale that seriously disrupted their education. Vaccination for the general good would, therefore, have educational advantages for teenagers, besides being an act of solidarity with their elders.

It is hard to make a scientific estimate of such benefits, although Professor John Edmunds, of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), has suggested that, to date, only about half of the child population have been infected. That leaves about six million children.

To allow infection to run through such a large group would risk a lot of disruption to schools in the coming months, especially since social distancing is extremely difficult in the corridor and classroom. With the adult population largely vaccinated, processes of virus mutation operating among such a large pool of children could produce new dangerous variants resistant to current vaccines.

Equally hard to quantify, although no less real, is the impact of Covid on the psychological, social, and spiritual well-being of our children. But we certainly know that research emerging from the year of the pandemic suggests that children and adolescents have been at higher risk of anxiety and depression.

All in all, a holistic evaluation of the good of the child suggests that making the vaccine available to young teenagers may be, on balance, the better option.

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