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Jury still out on the need to vaccinate children under 12, expert says

Tara Jeffrey A leading infectious disease expert from Sarnia says vaccinating children against COVID-19 may not be the great ‘pandemic panacea’ many Canadians are hoping for.
Dr. Sumon ChakrabartiSubmitted photo
Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti – Submitted photo

Tara Jeffrey

A leading infectious disease expert from Sarnia says vaccinating children against COVID-19 may not be the great ‘pandemic panacea’ many Canadians are hoping for.

“I think everyone right now is waiting on kids getting vaccinated — and the jury is actually out if we even need to do it,” Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti said during a live Q&A with Bluewater Health earlier this month. “Vaccination for adults makes sense because, number one, you’re protecting yourself… the second thing is you have a significant risk — especially as a younger adult — of passing COVID to other people.

“Once you get to a point where you're under 12,” he continued, “it’s not clear that, number one, it’s protecting you personally, because kids’ risk of severe disease is so low. And kids, yes, absolutely they can transmit, but epidemiologically on a broad scale, they don’t do it as much, to a very significant extent."

Earlier this month, Pfizer submitted preliminary data from its vaccine trial for children aged five to 11 to Health Canada for review.

Chakrabarti is an infectious disease physician at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga and a frequently cited expert in print and broadcast media during the pandemic, in Canada and the U.S.

In an interview with the Journal, Chakrabarti stressed that he is, “obviously very pro-vaccine,” but added, “I want to do this in a data-driven way.

“If the data shows that it’s going to be effective for kids — from a clinical standpoint — I think that’s great,” he said. “What I’m noticing happening is, people are really hanging on to the vaccination of kids as this panacea that’s going to get us out of this — when that’s not necessarily true.

“So it’s going to be interesting to see what Health Canada says about that when they get through the evidence — whether we should vaccinate kids or not — and if we should make it mandatory.”

Chakrabarti stressed that children tend to be the ones “receiving infection rather than giving it,” and that it’s ‘premature’ to start talking about mandatory vaccines for children in schools.

“There’s no doubt that it spreads in schools, but a lot of the cases we’re seeing, the majority of them are coming from outside the schools, from family. It’s not rampant.”

He also said it’s important to weigh the balance of risk, especially for younger males, in light of a small number of reports of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) or pericarditis (inflammation of the lining around the heart) linked to mRNA COVID-19 vaccination.

“We know there’s a risk of myocarditis in young men,” he said. “And presumably boys, as well — but we don’t know yet. Yes, it’s a small risk, but if you also have a small risk of severe disease, that needs to be measured against each other.”

According to Public Health Ontario, there have been 423 reported cases of myocarditis or pericarditis from more than 21 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the province as of Oct. 3.

Ontario issued a preferential recommendation of the use of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for 18 to 24-year-olds last month, ‘out of an abundance of caution’ after reporting rates of myocarditis/pericarditis were observed to be higher following vaccination with Moderna compared to Pfizer-BioNTech in that age group, notably among males.

“While there has been growing concern among some families about a possible increased risk of myocarditis or pericarditis in adolescent and young adult males after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, it shouldn’t’t change the decision to get vaccinated,” Hamilton Health Sciences said in a news release earlier this month.

Lambton’s Medical Officer of Health said it’s important to wait for the all the data to come from the vaccine trials and approval process.

“I’m not sure I would say ‘the jury is out’ on vaccinating children,’” said Dr. Sudit Ranade, in response to Chakrabarti’s comments.

“Here’s what I would say: the purpose of immunizing people over say, 30 or 40… is really to make sure that they are protected from severe outcomes of COVID, because the risks are higher and they get higher as you get older.

“The purpose of immunizing people, say, 20 and under, may be less about preventing hospitalizations — because that group is at much lower risk of that in the first place — but [more] about reducing transmission in the community and reducing the likelihood that those people — who are likely to have very mild symptoms if they do have COVID — bring that infection to somebody who is more vulnerable.”

“When we’re talking about vaccinating kids — we’re not necessarily weighing the risk of COVID disease for them individually,” he added. “But at the population level we’re looking to say, ‘Can we reduce the prevalence of disease overall in the community by immunizing everyone?’”

Chakrabarti said it’s important for Canadians to respect the scientific process and wait for the data, without putting political or public pressure on Health Canada.

“I’m alarmed at how the process has been circumvented — the scientific process — so many times,” he said.

“Vaccination, you have to remember, is a medical intervention,” he said. “And it should be treated like any medical intervention.”

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