Who advised the Prime Minister to vaccinate children against Covid-19?
PM’s announcement ran counter to what NTAGI advised. Children need more urgent vaccines than against Covid-19 as 2000 children die every day of preventable diseases for which vaccines are available
India rolled out vaccination against Covid-19 for age group 15-18 years from January 2022. This was a surprise in view of a statement by a member of the National Technical Advisory Group for Immunization (NTAGI) who said that this committee had not recommended vaccines for children below 18 years due to low risk of disease or death in this age group.
Dr. Jayaprakash Muliyil, the country’s leading epidemiologist, told the media on 21 December that the panel had informed the Union Government that “children are doing fine and we should not be vaccinating them”.
He went on to add, “India has not witnessed a single death among children below 12 years due to Covid-19. We have registered deaths among children due to cancer, leukaemia and other diseases where children tested positive, but those deaths could not be attributed to Covid-19.”
Earlier, in October 2021, Union Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya had also asserted that there should be no rush to push vaccines for children.
It was thus a bolt from the blue when the Prime Minister announced that vaccination in the age group 15-18 years would be rolled out from January 2022. Quick to oblige, the NTAGI chairperson, Dr. N.K. Arora, announced that children between the ages 12-18 years behave almost like adults and two thirds of deaths from Covid-19 have occurred in this age group! It was preposterous misinformation with no data to support it. In fact, the survival rate of Covid-19 infection in children up to 18 years of age is officially acknowledged to be 99.9973%.
Such clumsy attempts to justify and promote vaccines can backfire. People will lose faith in truly effective vaccines that prevent deaths from more lethal diseases such as measles, typhoid, Japanese encephalitis, diphtheria, diarrhoea, whooping cough, other respiratory infections, and tetanus.
Over 2,000 children in India die every day from these preventable diseases against the background of child malnutrition. Rarely a child dies from Covid-19 in spite of the misleading statement by the Chairperson of NTAGI. Focusing all resources on mass child vaccination against Covid-19 goes against all principles of public health and health economics even if we overlook the potential short term, and more importantly, the long-term risks of vaccines which are under experimental use authorization.
Interestingly, the Chairperson of NTAGI had himself expressed the view earlier last year that vaccinating children and young adults would be inappropriate as they did not suffer from Covid-19. Vaccines do not prevent transmission and mass vaccination can actually promote emergence of mutant strains.
There are three concerns of parents and policy makers. These are the risks at the individual level, the family level and the community level. An article published in Nature in January 2022 is reassuring for the healthy child.
This paper compiled data of deaths among children in England from March 2020 to February 2021. The study found that in this one-year period 99.995% of children and young adults below 18 years who contacted the virus survived. The rare deaths which occurred were in marginalized Asian and black ethnic groups besides those with co-morbidities.
Sweden, which kept schools open throughout the pandemic, did not experience any excess morbidity and mortality, either among children or among school staff. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that severe illness from Covid-19 was rare in Swedish children with only 1 admission in ICU out of 130,000 children and no deaths during four months of observation. What is the risk at the family level and community level? What are the chances that children will transmit infection to elders in the family and trigger community transmission?
A summary of evidence published in Pediatrics, titled, “Covid-19 transmission: the child is not to blame,” concludes that within families, children developed symptoms after adult members fell sick, suggesting that the child was not the source of infection to adult members in the family. The same paper also concludes that opening schools also do not trigger community transmission of Covid-19 unlike influenza, where schoolchildren are known to precipitate community transmission.
In many parts of the country,sero-surveys have revealed that more than 80% of children below 18 years have already encountered the novel coronavirus, most of them asymptomatic. Real world studies from Israel have established beyond doubt that immunity after natural immunity is 13 times more robust than vaccine induced immunity.
It is therefore a sheer waste of resources to roll out mass vaccination among children given the evidence. On the other hand it would expose children and young adults to potential risks, some already known (myocarditis have been reported after vaccination in countries with better monitoring of adverse events), and unknown long term effects, which can potentially be irreversible.
The Union Government has not mandated vaccination. However, there is indirect coercion by most state governments by way of discrimination in school attendance, places of recreation, malls, jobs and even in train and bus travel. The unvaccinated are being stigmatized. Throughout the pandemic, citizens have been treated like children unaware of what is good for them.
Vaccine mandates have become a game of “Daddy-Mummy” between the Centre and state. While the Centre plays “Daddy” and submits affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that vaccines are voluntary, state governments assume the role of “Mummy” and enforce compulsory vaccination by the “carrot and stick” approach.
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)