Europe ramps up Covid vaccine drive for children

By: AFP
Published: 09:59 PM, 15 Dec, 2021
Covid-19
Caption: Europe ramps up Covid vaccine drive for children.
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Europe stepped up vaccinations of children aged five to 11 against Covid-19 Wednesday, as the EU's health agency warned that immunisation alone would not stop the rapid rise of the Omicron variant of the virus.

Croatia, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Spain were among those opening up their inoculation drives to younger kids, with other nations still weighing their approach.

At Hospital Principe de Asturias in Alcala de Henares near Madrid, nurses wearing Christmas antler headbands welcomed children and gave them stickers after their shots.

"It only hurt a little," said 11-year-old Magdalena Lazo Vitoria as she left the vaccination centre, a plaster on her left shoulder.

"I wasn't nervous because I wanted to get vaccinated for a long time now, so I am really happy."

The push was lent fresh urgency by the rapid spread of the heavily mutated Omicron variant, which EU chief Ursula von der Leyen warned could be dominant in Europe by mid-January.

Even as children lined up to get jabs, the EU health agency ECDC said measures like mask-wearing, distance working and the prevention of crowds were essential to reduce the burden on healthcare systems in the time available, with vaccines alone taking too long.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he hoped his country, which already has one of Europe's highest Covid-19 vaccination rates, would become an "example for the world" with its immunisation campaign for five to 11-year-olds. 

The country has around 3.3 million children in that age group.

Lower dose 

Doctors across Europe reported strong initial demand from parents.

"As soon as we offered the vaccine appointments, they were pretty much all snapped up," said Jakob Maske, a Berlin-based doctor and spokesman for Germany's association of paediatricians.

Germany's STIKO vaccine commission has officially only recommended the jab for children with pre-existing conditions, but even healthy children will be inoculated if the parents request it. 

Some German cities plan to administer kids' jabs in museums and zoos, while others are considering mobile vaccination teams outside schools.

But like other countries, Germany also grapples with anti-vaccine militancy and Wednesday saw police in the eastern city of Dresden stage raids over death threats against Saxony state's pro-vaccine premier Michael Kretschmer. 

While serious illness and death from Covid among children is rare, those infected can pass the virus to other people at higher risk of serious illness, such as the elderly.

The EU's medicines watchdog last month approved the Pfizer-BioNTech shot for five- to 11-year-olds, an age group experiencing high coronavirus infection rates across the continent.

The vaccine is administered in a lower dosage than the Pfizer jab for over-12s, and comes in a paediatric vial with an orange cap to distinguish it from the purple-capped vials for older ages. 

Tighter restrictions 

Denmark, which has seen a surge in cases attributed to the new Omicron variant, and some Austrian regions already began offering jabs to younger kids in November.

The United States was the first large country to take the plunge and has so far vaccinated more than five million children in the 5-11 age bracket.

The drive to vaccinate children comes as several European nations tighten virus restrictions, with Poland imposing limits on the number of people allowed in restaurants, hotels and theatres.

Italy will from Thursday tighten restrictions for arrivals from the rest of the EU, requiring coronavirus tests for all travellers, while Greece announced a similar measure to come into effect from Sunday.

A number of European countries will launch children's vaccination drives in the coming days, including Italy, Portugal, Poland, the Baltic states and the Czech Republic, while others are still finalising their plans.

In France, vaccination has only been approved for five to 11-year-olds at risk of developing serious illness, but the government has said it is considering extending it to all children on a voluntary basis.

Belgium is awaiting the recommendation of its national health body, with a rollout likely around the new year.

British regulators are still assessing whether to approve jabs for the 5-11 age group, with a decision likely before Christmas.

AFP

Agence France-Presse is an international news agency.