In September, the UK’s Chief Medical Officers recommended vaccinating all 12 to 15 year olds with a first dose of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, to protect their physical and mental health and education. The flu vaccine programme for schools has also been extended from all primary school children plus Year 7 of secondary, to now include all secondary school pupils up to and including Year 11.
Over the last month or so, most parents across the country would have received letters in their book bags inviting eligible children to get their vaccines in school. The aim is to immunise as many children as possible ahead of winter, as scientists are predicting it may be a bad flu season as well as a surge in Covid-19 cases, which some schools are already experiencing.
To help keep parents informed, we have teamed up with leading paediatrician, Dr Annapoorna Sharma to answer some commonly asked questions. Dr Sharma has over 40 years experience caring for children. She has been the immunisation lead for the London boroughs of Brent, Camden, Hillingdon. Here’s what she had to say.
Is the Covid vaccine safe for children?
The Covid-19 (Pfizer-BioNTech) vaccine has now been tested in children in clinical trials in the USA, UK and Israel, and is shown to be safe and effective for young people. The Covid vaccine has now been available for over a year. Since this summer, tens of millions of young people around the world in countries like the USA, New Zealand, Canada, Spain and Israel, have also had vaccine protection for their physical and mental health, helping to keep their lives on track.
If Covid-19 mostly affects older people, why do young people need the vaccine?
Currently, the highest rise in Covid cases in the UK is in children who are unvaccinated. Although children and young people are less likely to be hospitalised with severe Covid-19, they can still get sick from the virus, and may have to miss school or suffer from long Covid symptoms.
The vaccine protects children by reducing the likelihood of catching Covid-19, and reducing the severity of the virus, if they do get infected. It also reduces their role in transmitting the virus, a child who is vaccinated is less likely to spread the virus. If enough children are vaccinated, they help provide a wall of safety for everyone around them. They may also stop new variants emerging because the virus doesn’t have a chance to take hold.
Right now, some schools are experiencing a rise in Covid-19 cases, and we all know too well the impact of school closures or contact isolation on young peoples’ lives.
Why is it important that children get the flu vaccine?
Having the flu vaccine will help protect your child from what can be a very nasty illness for children. Children under the age of 5 have the highest rate of hospital admission for flu. Vaccinating your child also reduces the chance of others in your family, who could be at greater risk from severe flu, such as grandparents or those with long term, getting flu from your child.
What kind of Covid-19 and flu vaccines are given to children and young people?
At present, young people aged 12-15 years are being offered just one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. This is the only Covid-19 vaccine approved for this age group at present.
Young people with existing health conditions at greater risk of developing severe Covid-19 and those who live with someone with an immune disorder are offered two doses of Covid-19 vaccine eight weeks apart. Those with suppressed immune disorders may need a course of three injections. Your child’s GP or hospital consultant can advise on what’s best for your child.
With the flu vaccine, most children are offered a nasal spray vaccine. Children aged 2 or 3 years (before September 2021) can get the flu vaccine at their GP surgery, while primary and secondary school aged children from reception to year 11 will be offered the vaccine in school. Children with long term health conditions are eligible for the flu vaccine from 6 months to 17 years of age. Some children can’t have the nasal spray vaccine, and they will be offered an injection instead.
The virus that causes Covid-19 and the virus that causes the flu are two completely different viruses, therefore two different vaccines are needed. Both vaccines can be given at the same appointment, alongside other vaccines for school children such as HPV, DTP MenACWY vaccines.
How do children get the flu and Covid-19 vaccine?
Most children and young people will be offered both vaccines with their class in school. Parents and guardians will get a letter from the school immunisation service provider with detailed information about both vaccines, including consent requirements.
For the Covid-19 vaccine only, young people 12+ can also get an appointment at a walk-in clinic or their GP and be vaccinated the same time as the rest of their family, if they want. An appointment can be booked online at nhs.uk/covidvaccine
For 2 and 3 year olds (provided they were this age on the 31 August 2021), you should receive an invitation for your child to have their flu vaccine at their GP surgery before the winter. You can also contact the surgery directly to make an appointment.
Will my children be offered the vaccine at school without my knowledge?
Parents will be asked to provide consent either online or by signing a paper form before their children are vaccinated in school. Separate consent must be given for the flu and Covid-19 vaccines. Leaflets will be handed out with further information on the vaccines, helping you make the best decision for your family. It’s best to discuss getting vaccinated with your children and reach a decision together.
In secondary schools, some young people will be mature enough to provide their own consent. Healthcare professionals from the school’s immunisation team will speak to the young person and make every effort to contact the parent. These professionals have expertise in vaccinating young people and will be responsible for assessing whether they have enough understanding to self-consent (this is called ‘Gillick competence’). This is a well-established process which you may be familiar with from other school-based vaccination programmes.
Vaccines programmes have been safely run in schools for a long time and have made a huge contribution to public health.
Does the flu vaccine contain pig products? Is there an alternative option if so?
Yes. This is a common question for some South Asian and Muslim families who may be vegetarian, vegan or halal. For those aged 2 to 17, the flu vaccine is usually given as a pain-free nasal spray which contains pork gelatine. If you or your child wish to avoid this for any reason, you can request for your child to have an alternative porcine-gelatine free flu vaccine which is administered as an injection in the arm. The Covid-19 vaccine does not contain any animal products. All major religious groups have said it is permissible and advocate its uptake.
Vaccination is the most powerful tool in our medical kit for keeping us all healthy. Of course it’s right to ask questions and find out all you can.
For more information on the Covid vaccine for children, visit: www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-vaccination-resources-for-children-and-young-people or nhs.uk/covidvaccine to find your nearest centre.
For more information on the flu vaccine for children, visit: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/child-flu-vaccine/