The World Forum - April 13th, 2024

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They're Coming For the Kids: With COVID-19 vaccine for kids on the horizon, questions raised about how many parents will agree

A poll by the Angus Reid Institute released this week found a relatively high level of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among Canadian parents of children aged five to 11. Health Canada is reviewing a vaccine by Pfizer for that age group.

In Ontario, the poll found that 18 per cent of parents with children aged 5 to 11 said they would not get them vaccinated, and another 20 per cent of parents agreed they would eventually do so, but “would wait a while first.”

That adds up to more than one-third of parents who said they had no immediate plans to have their children get the COVID-19 shot that is expected to be approved in the coming weeks.

The survey results suggest that public health officials have a challenge ahead beyond the basic logistics of how and when COVID-19 shots will be administered to kids.

But it’s early days. The vaccine for children has not been approved, so full information about the risks and benefits is not yet available, said Dr. Kumanan Wilson, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s school of medicine and senior scientist in clinical epidemiology at The Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.

“I do give (parents) the benefit of the doubt,” Wilson said. “Until you see that data, it’s hard to make a decision.”

In addition, the fourth wave of the pandemic has abated somewhat, so that may have contributed to a perception that the risk of COVID-19 is lower, he said.

“And, if things do worsen at some point, we may also start to see almost what we saw at the beginning of the vaccine (rollout): people rushing to get their kids vaccinated.”

Vaccines are key to ending the pandemic, experts agree.

“Immunization is the single most effective preventive intervention, and its widespread uptake will dramatically reduce infection rates even among unvaccinated people, including children,” the Ontario COVID-19 science table said in its report on school reopening.

However, there is no consensus on what is needed to get parents on board when the COVID-19 vaccine is approved for younger children.

Education is important, including providing parents with complete information about the risks and benefits, experts agree.

Other measures like mandates or restrictions on activities for kids who aren’t vaccinated are more controversial.

In Ontario, there have been calls from various groups, including education unions and the association representing English-language public schools, for mandatory vaccination for eligible elementary and secondary students.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board debated a motion earlier this fall to require eligible unvaccinated students to transfer to virtual school, with trustee Lyra Evans arguing it was vital to keep everyone safe. The motion was defeated, with some trustees saying it would unfairly penalize students for choices their parents made on their behalf and create conflict in families.

There have also been calls for the province to add the COVID-19 shot to the list of vaccines required to attend school under the Ontario Immunization of School Pupils Act.

Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore has resisted that idea.

He has said the province is creating digital records so public health officials can quickly check which students are immunized to help control cases and outbreaks in schools.

Moore has also pointed out that some people are under the mistaken impression that vaccinations listed under the act are mandatory. They are not. Parents can obtain exemptions for both medical reasons and reasons of “conscience or religious belief.”

In Ottawa, few parents seek exemptions for religious or personal reasons: about two per cent a year, Ottawa Public Health says.

The act also allows the medical officer of health to keep unvaccinated students from attending school if there is an outbreak or a risk of one. The vaccinations currently listed in the act are for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), poliomyelitis, measles, mumps, rubella, meningococcal disease and chickenpox.

There are several key differences between those nine vaccines and the COVID-19 shot, said Raywat Deonandan, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Ottawa.

The vaccinations listed under the act are almost exclusively to protect children, but the COVID-19 vaccine is also about protecting the health of older people in the community, he said.

There is also a lot of misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine, he said.

“There seems to be a distrust of these vaccines among a small, vocal minority based on the fact they are new and they seem to have new technologies. Other vaccines have also used interesting technologies as well, but no one knows and no one cares about it.”

Deonandan said he worried that a vaccine mandate might entrench opposition among hesitant parents.

“Is it better epidemiologically now if we made it mandatory? Absolutely. Would it solve a lot of problems? Absolutely. My only reluctance is the message it is sending, in particular to a very hardened group of parents whose co-operation we need in the long term.”

Another factor is whether Ontario’s vaccine certificate requirements to enter places like restaurants and movie theatres will be extended to children aged five to 11 once they are eligible to be vaccinated.

Passports have been shown to boost vaccination rates, Wilson said.