Vaccinating our tamariki

5 min read
Dr Mataroria Lyndon

15 January 2022

Opinion as featured in the New Zealand Herald

From January 17, nearly half a million Kiwi kids aged five to 11 are eligible to receive their COVID-19 vaccine.

This is great news, especially given the rapid spread of Omicron around the globe. Omicron is knocking on our door and it’s only a matter of time before it escapes into the community.

We know when this happens, it will spread rapidly. That is why it is so important that parents and caregivers act now to vaccinate their tamariki quickly and help us get into the best position to manage a major outbreak.

And thanks to the rollout of more than half a million vaccines for children, we are now ready to do so.

But I know some parents will be asking questions about the vaccine and whether they should get their tamariki vaccinated.

I get it. There is a lot of complex and confusing information out there that means we can feel confused or, at times, overwhelmed.

But I also know from experience that parents want to do all they can to protect their tamariki.

I want to make it clear that it is absolutely okay to ask questions and to open up the discussion with your partner or other caregivers, as well as your GP.

In doing this, remember that vaccination is our best form of protection for our tamariki, whānau and communities - especially with the new school year just around the corner.

The vaccine used for tamariki is a children’s version of the Pfizer vaccine, with a lower dose and smaller volume - about a third of the adult dose.

Not only has the vaccine undergone a thorough approval process by the country’s medicine regulator, Medsafe, but we also have the benefit of proven effectiveness and safety data from the international rollout.

In fact, COVID-19 vaccines are being monitored for safety with the most comprehensive and intense safety monitoring programme in US history.

More than seven million tamariki aged 5-11 in the US have received the first dose of the vaccine and over 4 million have had two doses.

For tamariki aged five to 11, clinical trial results showed the Pfizer vaccine was 90.7% effective against getting COVID-19 symptoms, and no participants developed severe COVID-19.

Simply put, the children’s dose is safe, effective, and our best line of defense against COVID-19.

Compared to the 2020 outbreak, we have seen more young people become infected by the Delta variant. A total of 2,226, or 20% of those infected in Aotearoa, have been tamariki aged nine or under.

And while tamariki are at a much lower risk of suffering serious illness from COVID-19, this doesn’t mean that they don’t get sick. They do.

And worse, our tamariki might even be at higher risk than their peers in other countries due to our higher rates of asthma and obesity, particularly amongst Māori and Pacific young people.

Tamariki are as likely to be infected with COVID-19 as adults and it can make them very sick and develop serious complications.

According to the CDC, more than 8,000 children have been hospitalised in the United States and nearly 100 tamariki have died.

In fact, COVID-19 ranks as one of the top ten causes of death for children aged 5 through to 11 in the US.

Tamariki infected with COVID-19 are also at risk of developing a rare, but serious, condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome, that causes different body parts, including the heart and lungs and brain, to become inflamed.

Since the pandemic started, more than 2,300 cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome have been reported amongst children in the US.

And young tamariki with underlying medical conditions have a higher risk of serious illness and hospitalisation. In fact, those aged nine years and under account for 7% of all hospitalised cases.

Immunising your child protects them from potentially becoming severely ill and lowers the risk of hospitalisation if infected with the COVID-19 virus.

But there are a range of other benefits.

Like adults, if your tamariki are infected with COVID-19, they may transmit the virus to others in your whānau or the community who may be more susceptible to severe consequences of infection or breakthrough infection for those who are vaccinated.

It can also help to restore a more normal life for our tamariki to continue learning, socialising and playing with their friends with less disruptions.

So, if you’ve decided to get your child vaccinated, what should you know?

First things first, there are many walk-in vaccination clinics across the country where you don’t need to book an appointment. If you feel more comfortable doing so, you can also arrange an appointment with your child’s regular GP.

Remember, children need two doses, these are currently recommended at eight weeks apart but can be shortened to 21 days in certain cases, such as if a child is starting significant immunosuppression treatment.

When you’re there, feel free to ask all the questions you may have, and allow your tamariki to do the same.

If they’re a little nervous, you might consider providing encouragement, setting a positive incentive following the appointment, or bringing something along that can help to distract them.

The symptoms from the children’s version of the Pfizer vaccine are similar to those seen in the 12 to 15 year olds, but are generally mild and should only last between 24 to 48 hours.

However, young tamariki may have trouble describing the side effects they are experiencing, so keep an eye on them for a couple of days following vaccination.

If they feel unwell, get them to rest and drink plenty of fluids. If they have pain at the injection site, you can put a cold cloth or ice pack on it and if you’re worried about any symptoms seek medical advice from your GP or healthline.

Our tamariki are the last remaining unvaccinated group in the population and every child vaccinated moves us one step closer to ending this pandemic.

*Dr Mataroria Lyndon is Co-Founder and Clinical Director for Primary Healthcare Provider Tend. He completed his Masters of Public Health at Harvard University and his PhD at the University of Auckland.