MADRID/BUDAPEST (Reuters) – Six-year-old Johanna squeezed her eyes shut as she received her first coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday at the Bethesda children’s hospital in the Hungarian capital Budapest.
She was among the first children aged 5-11 to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in the European Union as half a dozen countries launched campaigns amid soaring infections and fears about the rapid spread of the new Omicron variant.
“Johanna is perhaps a little nervous, but she also said she was ready for it,” said her father, Zsolt Jorasz. “They aren’t afraid, they’re used to getting vaccines.”
The campaign is a test of parents’ willingness to inoculate their children as governments seek to avoid the mass hospitalisations of previous waves.
The first specially adapted paediatric vials and syringes for smaller doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine arrived in the region this week.
Around 27 million 5-11 year-olds are eligible for the vaccine in the EU, and most countries want to move fast.
In Spain, hundreds of parents queued to have their children vaccinated at the Infanta Sofia hospital in San Sebastián de los Reyes outside Madrid, which expects to administer over 1,000 shots per day.
Nuria Miró, a 41-year old architect, hoped that inoculating her two youngest children, Pau, 11 and Marti, 5, would give her family peace of mind over Christmas when they meet up with elderly relatives.
“We were really looking forward to them being able to get the vaccine. At a personal and societal level, it’s imperative that we all get vaccinated,” she said, adding that she considered the vaccine no riskier than any other drug.
While most children do not become seriously ill from the coronavirus, they can unwittingly infect others at higher risk. And children now account for the majority of cases in Spain, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands.
Early studies indicate that existing two-dose vaccines may be less effective against the new variant, but will still prevent severe illness and could protect health systems from becoming overloaded. With Omicron cases doubling every two days in some countries, the race to immunise is on.
‘FOR THE COMMON GOOD’
Hungary said 38,000 parents had registered their children for the shot so far, while in Poland over 100,000 children were signed up to a vaccination drive starting on Thursday.
In Rome, clowns and jugglers were enlisted to cheer and distract children being vaccinated in a campaign extending to the rest of Italy on Thursday.
“Everyone has their own opinion, but we wanted to do it for the common good, for the school, and to guarantee that lessons can go on, otherwise we’ll never get out of this,” said Matteo Megna, who had brought a child for vaccination.
Denmark began inoculating its children against COVID-19 before the EU-wide recommendation, and has reached almost one in four of those eligible after just over two weeks.
But some parents say not enough is known about the impact of the vaccine on children. In the United States, similar concerns have meant that only 18% of children have received a shot since they became eligible last month.
France, Finland and Germany, where scepticism is relatively common, were vaccinating only the most vulnerable children rather than seeking blanket coverage.
But at a paediatrician’s office giving vaccinations in the German town of Maintal near Frankfurt, parent Sandra Harnisch said her family had been in quarantine nine times so far, for 10-14 days a time, because one or other of them had had contact with an infected person.
“For a second-grader, that’s barely tolerable, because she’s missed so much school,” she said.
Spain, where vaccination has been embraced, is already planning to administer second doses to children after eight weeks in both schools and hospitals.
“Today is the first day, the response has been extraordinary – and we’re convinced it’ll continue like this,” Health Minister Carolina Darias told reporters.
(Reporting by Clara-Laeila Laudette and Nathan Allen in Madrid, Krisztina Fenyo in Budapest, Cristiano Corvino in Rome, Erol Dogrudogan in Bonn, Annkathrin Weis in Maintal; writing by Clara-Laeila Laudette; editing by Josephine Mason)