As New Zealand prepares to roll out the COVID-19 vaccine to children, a leading Paediatrician says it is vital Pacific voices are heard and needs met.
Consultant Paediatrician at Middlemore Hospital in General Paediatrics and Chairman for South Seas Healthcare, Dr Teuila Percival (pictured) has provided advice and support to Pacific community providers, governance, as well as performing clinical work throughout the pandemic.
She says the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a magnification of existing health and socio-economic disparities for Pacific Aotearoa and mainstream organisational structures and systems have struggled to meet Pacific needs.
This is something she and her peers are working tirelessly to address ahead of the children’s vaccine rollout, due to get underway from January 17.
“All our efforts should ensure equity for Pacific – whether we are looking at vaccinations, illness rates, death rates, access to education during COVID for our kids, health care and social support,” Teuila says.
Last Friday, the Ministry for Pacific Peoples (MPP) and Teuila’s consultancy group Moana Research hosted a Zoom fono on protecting children from COVID-19, discussing how the vaccine rollout would work and any concerns people had about its safety for children.
The aim is always to inform and educate the Pacific community, and to help ease peoples’ fears or concerns about COVID-19 and the children’s vaccination, of which there are several common ones, Teuila says.
“For children, concerns with COVID in general include direct and indirect harm from the COVID-19 virus infection.
“Children infected with the COVID-19 virus will mostly have a mild illness, but that said, a number of children are at increased risk of severe illness with COVID – these are children with underlying lung, neurological and cardiac conditions and disabilities.”
Teuila says we can expect up to two percent of children infected with COVID will be sick enough to need hospital treatment with oxygen or IV fluids, and in the USA, native American, blacks, Hispanic and Pacific children have higher rates of COVID, hospitalisation and complications due to having the virus.
“Child deaths from COVID infection are rare but they do occur and, in the USA, 20 percent of COVID illness deaths were in healthy children with no underlying chronic health conditions.”
The indirect harm to children is considerable, with parents and loved ones unwell, separated in hospital or death of a relative, Teuila adds.
“There is educational interruption and loss of contact with friends and peers, plus the loss of other support systems (peers, teachers, counsellors), and family members losing jobs.
“Given the increased rates of COVID illness severity in Pacific community and the considerable socio-economic burden our communities face, this indirect harm is a concern.”
For children, there are layers of protection against COVID which we need to ensure we use, the doctor adds.
“We need to vaccinate the adults around them including boosters now we have the Omicron variant on our doorstep, ensure masks are used, as well as hand hygiene, social distancing, avoiding likely super spreader events, and vaccinating children and young people against COVID.”
Health experts know from trials the Paediatric Pfizer vaccine is effective in producing immunity in children, and vaccination will protect them from direct harm including serious illness and hospitalisation, Teuila says.
“With any vaccination, we weigh up the risk of the actual infection with the risk of side effects from the vaccination, and the Paediatric Pfizer vaccination is very safe.
“Over eight million doses have been given to children aged 5 -11 in the USA already, and side effects reported are similar to what has been seen in older people – sore arms, headache, sore muscles, fever, tiredness in the one to two days after the vaccination.
“About five percent of parents reported their child needed a day off school – it is important to know there is intensive ongoing monitoring for side effects and safety after all vaccine including the Pfizer COVID Paediatric vaccine.”
Most parents are worried about serious side effects, and in particular reports in the media of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) after vaccination in older teenagers and young adults, Teuila continues.
“It is important to understand firstly that myocarditis has been around much longer than COVID-19, but it’s recently sparked quite a bit of media attention as a very rare side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Unfortunately, this means that misconceptions and myths about the condition abound and in order to make an informed decision about vaccinating your child or teen, it is important to separate the myths from the facts.”
Myocarditis can occur when a virus, such as the common cold, influenza (flu) or SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) infects the body.
The condition ranges from very mild cases, in which symptoms resolve on their own, or very severe cases, in which a patient requires intensive hospital care, or the heart muscle is permanently damaged.
“So far, from eight million vaccinations, there have been 11 cases of mild myocarditis in 5-11-year-olds, with children recovering quickly.”
In the case of COVID-19, children have a much greater chance of being infected with the COVID-19 virus which results in heart issues, including myocarditis, than experiencing myocarditis as a side effect of the vaccine, Teuila adds.
“The bottom line is while kids are less likely to develop severe illness from COVID-19, they can get COVID-19, they can transmit COVID-19 and they can get severe illness and they can die from COVID-19.”
Children will not be vaccinated without full informed consent by their parent(s), and while Teuila and her fellow paediatricians will strongly advise parent to get their child vaccinated, if the parents make a choice not to vaccinate their child, it will not prevent children going to school or getting medical care.
“As doctors we will continue to do our best to support and help them in any way we can.”
What can parents do to prepare their children for their vaccination jabs?
If you have concerns about the children’s vaccine, talking with your GP is a good start.
There are also helpful websites with information below: