COVID vaccines for teenagers: what UK parents need to know amid a new wave of misinformation

COVID vaccines for teenagers: what UK parents need to know amid a new wave of misinformation

Roman Chazov/Shutterstock

The UK has approved giving one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to all children aged 12-15, with vaccines largely being given within the education system. Schools are helping coordinate the rollout, including the consent process. Under-16s need parental consent to have the vaccine.

Unfortunately, schools, parents and teenagers have also become the victims of anti-vaccination misinformation campaigns. For example, a fake vaccine consent form was recently sent to many UK schools in late September 2021. It reportedly arrived in an email disguised as being from the NHS, and a few schools believed it to be genuine and sent it to parents and guardians.

The form contained a lot of misinformation and was evidently designed to dissuade parents from giving their consent by depicting vaccines as less safe and effective than they are. If you’re a parent whose child is being offered a COVID-19 vaccine, here’s what you should know.

Vaccines highly safe and effective

The fake form states that the vaccine “may” reduce the severity of COVID-19 symptoms in people who get infected. It also says that it “may not” prevent individuals from passing it on. While not strictly wrong, this is misleading in its emphasis.

The evidence is clear that vaccines are extremely effective at preventing hospitalisation and death and that they greatly reduce transmission of the virus. Emerging evidence, yet to be reviewed by other scientists, suggests this remains the case with the delta variant.

The fake form also states there’s a “1 in 29,389 chance of dying from the vaccine”, before claiming that the real risk is probably ten times higher. The source of that statement is uncited. It’s likely that the claim is essentially fabricated.

Looking at the figures used to calculate this statistic, it appears to be using data from the Yellow Card reporting system, an online tool where people can report adverse events (including deaths) that have happened to people in the time after they’ve had a COVID-19 vaccination. At the time of writing, 1,682 such deaths have been logged, out of 94 million doses administered.

The system is an excellent way of spotting possible safety problems. But people don’t need to prove that deaths are related to the vaccine to log them. Deaths that follow vaccination may happen for all sorts of unrelated reasons. Crucially, the UK’s medicines regulator states that its review of these reports “does not suggest the vaccines played a role in these deaths”.

The fake form also makes claims about vaccine side-effects. Some are false. There’s no evidence that the vaccines cause blindness or deafness. Other side-effects mentioned – such as strokes and blood clotting disorders – have been linked to vaccines, and some people have died. But what the form doesn’t mention is that they are very rare.

Blood clots, for instance, affected roughly 15 people for every million first vaccine doses given. It’s worth noting that the risk of experiencing blood clots or a stroke is much higher if you get COVID-19. Also, in the UK, blood clots are linked to the AstraZeneca vaccine, which isn’t being given to teenagers, and there don’t appear to be any clots (or deaths possibly related to them) reported in under-18s.

There’s also one potential side-effect of the mRNA vaccines (those made by Pfizer and Moderna) that the fake form doesn’t mention, which is myocarditis, or heart inflammation. Initial data from US suggests it’s also very rare, but also that it’s more common in teenagers than adults, more common in men, and more common after the second rather than first vaccine dose. There have been 43 cases for every million second doses of the Pfizer vaccine given to boys aged 12-15. Having analysed all reported cases in under-18s, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t believe that any have resulted in death.

This is why, until there’s more information on the link between the vaccine and myocarditis, the government is giving 12- to 15-year-olds in the UK only a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Benefits not even across age groups

A common complaint from those who are against teenage vaccination is that children are at low risk of severe disease or death from COVID-19. The fake consent form alludes to this.

Indeed, the government’s vaccine advisory committee has acknowledged that for 12- to 15-year-olds with no underlying health conditions, the exact balance of risks and benefits with COVID-19 vaccines is hard to measure precisely. The threat of the disease in this age group is very low and there are some very rare side-effects with the vaccines.

However, children have died of COVID-19. There are also other consequences of children being infected such as being hospitalised, getting long COVID, having their education disrupted and passing the virus on. The risk of all of these is lowered by vaccination.

It’s this combination of factors that caused the chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to jointly recommend to government that vaccines be rolled out to all 12- to 15-year-olds. Although the benefits of vaccination aren’t as stark in the young as they are in the old, the vaccines are still clearly beneficial.

Similar policies are already in place across many countries in Europe and North America, with millions of doses having already been administered to teenagers.

Schools now an anti-vaxxer target

It’s almost inevitable that COVID-19 will become endemic, continuing to circulate among humans for years to come. High levels of protection across the population will be vital in reducing the burden of the virus. Vaccines are overwhelmingly the safest way to achieving that.

Sending fake documents purporting to be from the NHS is therefore unethical and abhorrent. It will likely undermine public health by dissuading some parents, on false grounds, from consenting to their children being vaccinated.

Two girls in masks leaving school
Schools are becoming the latest battleground for anti-vaxxers. Yau Ming Low/Shutterstock

It is abundantly clear that UK schools have been caught in a very unpleasant campaign against the vaccination of teenagers. Aside from the misinfomration, there have been protests as well as threats of harm and legal threats made to schools and headteachers.

We should counter these actions by giving parents the most accurate information on COVID-19 vaccines available, so that they can make a decision on what’s best for their children’s health – a decision that isn’t clouded by misinformation.

The Conversation

Michael Head has received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development.

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