Thousands of families of vulnerable children face Covid-19 vaccine uncertainty, charity warns

Thousands of families with children considered extremely vulnerable to Covid-19 are facing an anxious wait on when they can be vaccinated, a disability charity has warned.

Contact, a charity that supports families with disabled children, called on the Government to outline when children under the age of 16 who have severe underlying illnesses and their parents can expect to be protected against the disease.

Across England there are nearly 56,000 children aged under 18 on the Shielded Patient List, which is compiled using a clinical algorithm as well as GP referrals to include those at high risk of severe illness.

While adults who are clinically extremely vulnerable are among the priority groups being offered jabs during the first phase of the rollout, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has warned there is a “paucity” of data on how the two vaccines approved in the UK work in under-16s.

Families face a wait for more data, as children have only been included in latter stages of ongoing trials of the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines.

And a review of the recommendations for vaccinating vulnerable youngsters will not take place until after the initial rollout, according to guidance published in the Green Book on immunisation against infectious diseases.

The Department of Health and Social Care did not respond to specific questions about the vaccination options for families of younger, clinically vulnerable patients.

A spokesman said that very few children and young people were at risk of severe illness due to Covid and that doctors were reviewing the shielding list to confirm those initially identified as clinically extremely vulnerable.

Of the 2.2 million people in England who are shielding, 56,140 of them are under 18, while the largest age group, those aged 70-79, totals 561,700 patients.

Contact said parents wanted greater clarity from the Government and the JCVI.

Una Summerson, head of policy at the charity, said: “We would welcome information on the approach the Government’s expert committee is taking to find an appropriate vaccine for children with long-term and rare conditions.

“It might be that some of these children can’t have a vaccine and that’s why it’s so important that their parents are vaccinated as soon as possible. Vaccinating their parents will help protect clinically vulnerable children.

“The parents we support are worried about two things – getting the virus and not being able to look after their child, and passing the virus on to their medically vulnerable children.

“We know that people with underlying health conditions and learning disabilities are much more likely to die of Covid-19, so there is understandable fear and anxiety.”

The Green Book notes that while children have a very low risk of contracting severe or deadly Covid-19 compared with adults, there is an increased risk of exposure to infection and outbreaks for disabled children in institutional settings.

The document said: “Vaccination may be considered for children with serious neuro-disabilities (including cerebral palsy, severe autism and Down’s syndrome) who spend regular time in specialised residential care settings for children with complex needs.

“As older children have higher risk of acquiring and becoming sick from infection and there are some safety data on the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in children aged 12 years and older, vaccination of older children in these settings should be considered.”

But it warned that to do so would be outside the terms of Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approval and so “would be considered unlicensed use”.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said it expects to see more safety data being gathered from clinical trials to inform strategies for vaccination of under-16s.

A spokesman said: “This research is essential to ensure paediatricians are equipped to discuss immunisation with children, young people and parents and can address any questions they may have about the vaccine.

“Further data on the effect of vaccines on transmission of the virus is needed to shape strategies to cocoon those who cannot be vaccinated (due to immunosuppression or immunocompromise) by vaccinating close family and household contacts.”

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