Although the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) approved the Pfizer vaccine for 12–15-year-olds at the end of May, Ireland's National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) has yet to issue guidance on the vaccine for that age group here. Parents and carers of vulnerable children have been campaigning to get their children vaccinated and Aisling McEniffe and Agnes O’Shaughnessy spoke to Claire Byrne about their children’s situations. Aisling is the sole carer for her son Jack and they’ve have been cocooning since March 2020. Jack, 15, has Down Syndrome and a rare auto-inflammatory disease. Aisling told Claire Byrne that she sees no end in sight:
"At the beginning we kind of thought – sure we all thought – it was only going to be a few months, and it’s gone on and on and on. And the vaccine was kind of, for me the light at the end of the tunnel. But he still hasn’t been vaccinated."
Even though Jack will be 16 and eligible for a vaccine at the end of July, that doesn’t mean he can go back to his special school, because none of his classmates will have been vaccinated. And Aisling knows from experience that vaccination alone doesn’t guarantee immunity when those around you have not been vaccinated:
"I know that he needs herd immunity to be protected fully. And we know that because often he goes to school in winter and he has the flu vaccine and we all have the flu vaccine – and I get it from the minute it comes out, September 30th – and he sometimes contracts it and when he does, he ends up in hospital very sick. And in 2019, he was in and out of ICU a few times. So, I just can’t take the risk of him contracting Covid, because I just don’t think he’d survive."
Aisling doesn’t just want all children over the age of 12 who are vulnerable to be vaccinated, she wants all children over the age of 12 to be vaccinated, otherwise the risk remains too great for Jack and for children like him. Agnes has a different, but no less urgent story. Her son Alex was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma in 2019 and his treatment has left him with a compromised immune system:
"Alex himself is nervous. He’s 12 you know and he’s very aware of what’s going on around him and he’s very conscious that he doesn’t go into groups. He might meet friends one on one, but rarely. And he’s always asking me about the figures locally. So, for Alex’s sake, he really wants to be vaccinated."
Alex is due to start secondary school in September, but Agnes says that if he’s not vaccinated by then, he won’t be going.
Listening to the two mothers’ concerns was Dr Gabriel Scally, Visiting Professor of Public Health at the University of Bristol and former Regional Director of Public Health in England. Dr Scally was firmly of the opinion that vulnerable should be vaccinated and he told Claire he couldn’t understand why Ireland was hesitating:
"I worry that we’re in danger of neglecting children, really, during this pandemic. And vaccination, I think, has brought that to the fore."
Dr Scally’s view aligns with Aisling’s – it’s not just vulnerable children that should be vaccinated, it’s all children over the age of 12.
"In the US, they’ve vaccinated – it's approaching 10 million young people, aged 12 and over and we should be doing the same."
You can hear Claire's full discussion with Aisling McEniffe, Agnes O’Shaughnessy and Dr Gabriel Scally, by going here.