By Clara Falkowska
The dominant narrative in society and the media is in favour of all individuals getting the vaccine. For older people, it clearly provides a health benefit. For younger age categories this health benefit is less clear, but there is a strong social imperative for young people to ‘do their bit’ and get the vaccine to protect others. It is not necessarily in the best interests of the individual child’s health. How can it be considered ethical to enforce this medical treatment on children merely for a moral imperative?
The decision to consent to the vaccine must be an individual one. Children and parents must be equipped with balanced scientific information to make an informed decision: they must be aware of the risks as well as the benefits of the vaccine. I am not arguing for or against the vaccine, but rather, I wish to present some points and statistics and emphasise the importance of free-thinking.
The decision to administer medical treatment must be based on a risk-benefit analysis regarding the health of the individual. For older adults, Covid-19 poses a severe risk to their health. The side effects and risks of the vaccine are comparatively minimal. Therefore, for older age cohorts, the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risk – and therefore the vaccine should be recommended. However, for younger age groups (namely healthy under-18-year-olds), the risk posed by Covid-19 is much lower and the risk of adverse reactions to the vaccine is higher. Therefore, for healthy children, the risks and benefits are much more finely balanced.
The vaccine poses almost as much of a risk to the health of the individual child as Covid-19 does. In data published by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of myocarditis and pericarditis (inflammation of the heart tissue) caused by the vaccine was almost equal to the risk posed by Covid-19: in the sample of children aged 12-17, between 56 and 69 cases of myocarditis and pericarditis were estimated; while for the same cohort, the estimated number of avoidable ICU admissions from Covid-19 was only 71.
Furthermore, the risk of Covid for children is even lower than it appears: many children have a level of natural immunity to SARS-CoV-2, having already been infected. This is not factored into the government modelling statistics. Another argument for vaccinating children is to reduce transmission. However, the evidence shows that people who have been vaccinated are still being infected and transmitting the virus. Therefore, the ‘benefit’ of the vaccine is much lower than it seems.
In addition, this is a new type of vaccine: the first mRNA vaccine authorised for use in humans. Therefore the long-term risks are unknown. The presence of this unknown risk conceivably outweighs the already slim benefits offered by the vaccine to children. Therefore, on a risk-benefit analysis, the vaccine is not necessarily in the best health interests of the child.
It is unethical for children to be pressured to consent to a medical treatment which will be of minimal health benefit, and also carries unknown risk. Administering vaccines in schools effectively makes them compulsory. Children will feel pressured to consent: to refuse will feel like disobedience, create divisions amongst peers and elicit judgement.
A decision not to be vaccinated is judged as selfish and ultimately socially unacceptable. Whilst there is no doubt that everyone must behave responsibly to limit the risk they put others at, this should not be to the extent that children and young people are expected to put their own health at (unknown) risk. The decision to consent to medical treatment is a solely individual matter – the pressurising and shaming culture which has developed surrounding this is morally inexcusable.
This is not to say that children should not be offered the vaccine. But it must be a personal choice. It is key that we allow children and teenagers the responsibility to make this choice. We should educate teenagers with balanced information about the risks and benefits of the vaccine to equip them to make their own well-informed, independent decision. Furthermore, this is a prime opportunity for young people to learn and to exercise free-thinking: opportunities for which have been particularly repressed during the pandemic. Children should learn about decision-making, risk-taking, and the concept of an unknown risk. This is an opportunity for children to regain some of their autonomy which has been restricted – and it is this, not the vaccine, which could improve children’s mental health. It is the policy decisions of government, many of which remain in place, that have had a profound impact on education.
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