The COVID-19 vaccination rollout is set to reach new territory in Australia when children as young as five are given the jab.
From Monday, January 10, Pfizer’s Comirnaty vaccine will be available to the 5-11 age group for the first time.
The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) gave approval for the vaccine in December.
“This approval is based on the results of a recent clinical trial demonstrating that the vaccine is highly effective and that most side effects are mild and transient,” ATAGI said in a statement on December 8.
The approval continued a staggered approach to the rollout in Australia, starting in January 2021 when doses were made available to frontline workers, before children as young as 12 could get the jab from July.
Approximately 43 million doses have been administered in Australia since the rollout began, with around 91 per cent of the national population over 16 double dosed.
Here’s what you need to know about the vaccine rollout to five to 11-year-old children in Australia:
Does it work?
Both ATAGI and the TGA claim rigorous testing has been conducted on the age group prior to Comirnaty being approved.
ATAGI said in a trial of more than 2000 children, the vaccine was more than 90 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 seven days after the second dose.
Overseas data was also considered, including trials in the United States and Spain, with the TGA claiming the immune response in the age group being similar to that of older people.
Is it safe?
In terms of safety, side effects have been reported to be mild and rare.
ATAGI says the vaccine has been “demonstrated to be well tolerated” in five to 11-year-old children.
Adverse reactions were less common in the age group compared to 16 to 25-year-olds, the authority said, but local redness and swelling of the jab site were more common in children than young adults, according to ATAGI.
“The systemic adverse reactions most frequently reported were fatigue, headache, muscle pain, chills and fever, with the latter occurring in 6.5 per cent of children after dose two,” ATAGI said.
The risk of heart illnesses myocarditis and pericarditis, which are known but rare side effects of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, is “not yet known” to the 5-11 age group.
But data from the US where 4.8 million children belonging to the age group shows the occurrence to be “rare”, said ATAGI, which also highlighted records in Australia.
Myocarditis has occurred most commonly in teenage boys who have reported 12 cases per 100,000 Pfizer doses in Australia, according to the TGA.
What is the schedule?
Authorities have recommended a schedule of two doses to be given eight weeks apart.
That’s despite Pfizer recommending the doses being given three weeks apart.
ATAGI says it extended the time between doses to improve the effectiveness of the vaccine as “extending the interval has resulted in higher antibody concentrations”.
It’s believe the timeframe could reduce the risk of side effects such as myocarditis.
What about vulnerable children?
With the school year to begin in late January, within the eight-week vaccine schedule, parents have expressed concern about sending their children to school before they are double jabbed, particularly if a child is immunocompromised.
ATAGI has said in “special circumstances”, the interval can be shortened to a minimum of three weeks.
General practitioner Maria Boulton, who’s AMA Queensland’s Council of General Practice chair, said she’s already been contacted by the parents of vulnerable children asking for advice.
“There are a lot of worried parents out there,” the Brisbane doctor said.
“Yes, COVID can be a mild disease in most children. However, there are some children who are vulnerable.”
What’s the plan with schools?
Fears of children becoming infected with COVID-19 became more real for parents this week when Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the intention to end learning from home due to the virus.
Mr Morrison said the Commonwealth and state governments had agreed for schools to “go back and stay back” when class resumes, after a National Cabinet meeting.
That’s led to concerns given there are likely to be a large number of children returning to school without having had even one dose of the vaccine.
State leaders are currently developing a framework around the return-to-school, but the Queensland government has announced the holidays could be extended for primary students if COVID-19 cases are peaking at the end of the month.
How to book?
Parents of children aged 5-11 have been able to book a vaccination appointment in most states since last month.
Australians can find their nearest provider of COVID-19 vaccines for children via the Department of Health’s Vaccine Clinic Finder website.
There has been some concern about the supply of doses for the age group, particularly from private providers.
However, authorities have moved to assure there is enough to go around, despite admitting doses may be hard to come by in some areas.
“There will be adequate paediatric doses to meet the first dose requirement, at least for all kids, prior to the commencement of school, either within January or in the early weeks of February,” said Lieutenant General John Frewen, who’s overseeing the vaccine rollout.
“There has been a very strong uptake in bookings.
“If you are finding difficulty getting a booking now with your primary health provider for your five to 11-year-old kids, there are more than 10,000 points of vaccination around the country now.
“I do encourage you to try a pharmacist or try a state and territory clinic as an alternative.”