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NI Children’s Commissioner ‘doesn’t know’ whether she would offer Covid vaccine to her child amid ‘confusing’ advice

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Northern Ireland Children's Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma has admitted she "doesn't know" whether she as a parent would give a child aged between five and 11 the Covid-19 vaccination.

Speaking to the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme, Ms Yiasouma said it is clear the JCVI have been "on the fence".

"The advice they issued yesterday is very ambiguous - it may be very confusing for parents," she said.

The Department of Health has followed the latest advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which recommended the extension of the vaccination to that age group.

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Following the updated JCVI advice, all five to 11-year-old children in Northern Ireland will be offered two vaccine doses, to be administered at least 12 weeks apart. The injections will be 10-microgram doses of Pfizer-BioNTech's vaccine - a third of the strength of an adult dose.

Some children in this age group began receiving Covid vaccines in December but until now, jabs were only available to children with health conditions that put them at increased risk or those who live with an immunosuppressed patient.

When asked if she would give the vaccine to her own child if they were in that age group, Ms Yiasouma said: "I genuinely don't know. I have read what JCVI published. I genuinely don't know what I would do if my children were that age. I would think very carefully. If my children were in the older age group, I would talk with them. I would also maybe have a talk with my GP and with other parents," she said.

"I was in support of the older children being vaccinated. The JCVI advice is not one way or the other. Parents should be allowed make the decision that's right - they shouldn't be pilloried, they shouldn't be attacked."

Parents are divided into those who consider the "minimal" risk to their children of getting ill, while others want their child not to be at risk of getting Covid. "I don't envy parents making this decision," she said.

In order to support them, Ms Yiasouma said "very clear and accessible advice" should be made available by the Public Health Agency with the Department of Health to allow parents to come to a decision.

"There is a compelling argument around future waves - if [they] are more serious than Omicron has been, JCVI has said this will protect children and families and communities from future waves."

JCVI deputy chair Professor Anthony Harnden said he accepted the advice could be clearer. "With the well 5-11 year olds, the decision is much more finely balanced. Although serious complications from Covid are very rare with well children, the rare side effects from the side effects are even rarer. So actually there is a marginal health benefit to vaccinating children now," he said.

"We don't know what's going to happen in the future. There may be a future wave in the summer of Covid and there may be another variant. We wanted to give parents the choice of this one-off offer of a Covid vaccine. If that comes across as ambiguous, we apologise. Sometimes life is not black and white.

"If you've been vaccinated and infected, then you get a much broader immune profile [after vaccination] that protects against future variants."

In response to comments that the vaccine for younger children wasn't rolled out quickly enough, Prof Harnden said the JCVI issued guidance on December 22 that children with underlying illnesses should be vaccinated. The paediatric vaccine hadn't been approved by the [UK regulator] MHRNA at that point and wasn't rolled out by the NHS until that time, he said. "We have had time to make that decision. Other countries have pushed ahead with they pushed ahead for different reasons."

The full guidance from JCVI said fewer than two children would develop inflamed heart muscle (myocarditis) out of every million vaccinated.

Prof Harnden said: "We've been very careful about trying to characterise that, that's between one and two per million, they're very mild and we're using a different vaccine schedule in this country with a twelve week gap between the first and second dose so we're hoping we'll eliminate [that] risk - it won't be nil but it will be very small indeed."

He added: "It's not a trial vaccine, there have been a lot of paediatric trials and it's been used in other countries."

On Wednesday, Health Minister Robin Swann said: "As has always been the case, our vaccination programme will continue to be guided by the expert advice.

"This announcement by the JCVI underlines the important role that the Covid-19 vaccines plays in protecting people of all ages and has only been taken after rigorous assessment of both safety and effectiveness."

Health trusts would work with the Public Health Agency to put the advice into operation and further details of the roll-out would be released shortly, he added.


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