Childhood Vaccinations are Life Savers

Let’s not put them in jeopardy

Many people won’t be familiar with epiglottitis – a throat inflammation often caused by an infection from Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) bacteria.

As a baby, it nearly killed me.

I was very sick with measles in 1980, my first year of primary school, and contracted mumps as a teenager. One of my favourite teachers bore the effects of polio, so I was grateful to have had the sugar cube vaccine.

I have never felt the need to question the childhood immunisation programme.

The BCG jab hurt like hell, not least because the boys in our middle school loved to go round punching everyone on their blistered arm – but we knew TB was a terrible disease, and we were lucky to be immunised. I didn’t mind the rubella jab, but neither did I appreciate it – this is,  until much later when I became pregnant and had one less reason to worry.

Once my babies were born, I was amazed and impressed by the UK’s childhood immunisation programme. As a matter of course, my children would each be protected against a whole range of deadly and unpleasant infections – including my old demons of Hib and measles, as well as illnesses like meningitis, which terrified our parents back when there was no vaccine. The relatively new HPV jab helps protect against cervical cancer, knocking one thing off a young women’s list of anxieties. Rolling out immunisations for teenagers through schools means that parents don’t have to demand them or even navigate medical appointments to obtain them – we sign the consent form, and the jab is done.

In all this time, I have never felt the need to question the childhood immunisation programme. I’m not a medical professional, and doctors and nurses don’t jab people for fun. Babies cry, teenagers moan, and nobody loves a needle. Still, I am relieved to have my children protected from the illnesses from which I suffered and happy for them to contribute to population immunity from diseases such as polio and diphtheria that, thankfully, have receded from the UK.

So why am I worried about proposals for mass vaccination of children against COVID-19?

Childhood vaccinations also have social benefits – ask any working mum. When my children were at nursery, I was self-employed. In one of my children after the other, the arrival of chickenpox meant a month of paying fees with no childcare and little income. In addition to coping with the terror of nasty infectious diseases striking their children, previous generations of mothers had to allow for the time spent caring for sick children, the inconvenience of quarantine, and the domino effect of spread to other children in the household.

It’s hard to hold down a career with those mental and physical burdens constantly looming.

It would be easy to take the medical and social impact of childhood immunisation for granted and worry more about jabs’ side-effects than the illnesses themselves. Fortunately, for the most part, parents don’t. By their second birthday, over 90% of children in England are vaccinated against classic diseases.

So why am I worried about proposals for mass vaccination of children against COVID-19?

For me, the problem isn’t so much about safety or side effects although, given the extremely low level of danger posed to children by COVID-19, these are issues that should be seriously considered. Nor is it about the principle of encouraging children to be inoculated more for the sake of others than for themselves, although it does raise legitimate ethical questions. My concern is about the irrationality of this strategy and its potential knock-on effects on the tried, tested, and trusted childhood immunisation programme that we already have.

We must prioritise consent over compulsion and evidence over experimentation.

The COVID-19 vaccine protects those vulnerable to severe illness and death. It seems not to prevent transmission of the virus entirely nor to confer lifelong immunity. So the case for vaccinating kids is not, as is often simplistically implied, ‘One jab for all to create herd immunity, and we’re done’. In stark contrast to the childhood immunisation programmes that have been developed over the years, the proposal to vaccinate children is a panicked, politicised measure that seems more about recruiting children’s bodies into the symbolic fight against COVID-19 than limiting the actual effects of a disease.

We have already put children through a year of performative Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs), including school closures, enforced mask-wearing, and mass screening – all of which not only have little positive effect on containing infections but negatively impact children’s health and wellbeing. These interventions have reduced many parents’ trust in the medical, scientific, and educational authorities who previously flaunted their commitment to children’s welfare. To involve the childhood immunisation programme in delivering a controversial, neverending jab-a-thon could put this programme in jeopardy far more easily than policy-makers may realise.

We have seen what happens when health services are myopically organised around one particular disease. Will we end up prioritising COVID-19 jabs over HPV, tetanus, meningitis? Will parents have to start fighting for the necessary childhood inoculations rather than having them rolled out as a matter of course? Will parents’ concerns over the COVID-19 jab lead to a heightened suspicion of the existing vaccines, leading to a drop in community protection against those diseases that pose a serious threat to children’s health?

Over the past century, the UK has built an effective, efficient, and trusted childhood immunisation programme, prioritising consent over compulsion and evidence over experimentation. Policy-makers must not become so fixated on ‘doing more’ to fight COVID-19 in the present that they risk damaging everything we have done to fight the diseases that caused such devastation in the past.

Dr Jennie Bristow is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University, author of The Corona Generation, a member of the Collateral Global editorial board, and a Mum.

Any content is provided for your general information purposes only and to inform you about [publicly available information relating to COVID-19 and various government level strategies for addressing the pandemic provided by researchers and other third-party websites that may be of interest], but has not been tailored to your specific requirements or circumstances. It does not constitute technical, financial or legal advice or any other type of advice and should not be relied on for any purposes. You should always use your own independent judgment when using our site and its content.