The younger you are, the more hesitant you may be about getting your Covid-19 jab. That’s the finding of a major new survey of school children across the UK.
The OxWell School Survey 2021, jointly run by research teams from the University of Oxford, University College London (UCL) and the University of Cambridge, surveyed 27,000 pupils from year five to year 13 in 180 schools across Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, and Merseyside.
The results, published in EClinicalMedicine, found that 36% of nine-year-olds are willing to have a Covid-19 vaccination, compared to 51% of 13-year-olds, and 78% of 17-year-olds.
Children less willing to get the jab are also more likely to come from the most socioeconomically deprived backgrounds, feel less belonging to their school community, and think they have probably already had coronavirus.
“Our survey findings show that children become more willing to have the Covid-19 vaccine as they get older,” said Mina Fazel, study co-author and associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Oxford.
“Younger children more often defer to their parents, or primary caregivers, for decisions about healthcare and vaccination, but our data shows how important it is for good quality, accessible information to be provided to better enable our younger populations to understand more about the Covid-19 vaccine and its effects,” she added.
This is the first large-scale study to ask children and teens how willing they are to be vaccinated against Covid-19. The authors said it highlights the need for more resources to help young people feel confident and to get the jab when it is offered to them.
The vaccine is currently being rolled out to all 12 to 15-year-olds at school, with consent forms being sent out to parents beforehand.
What if children wan’t the vaccine and their parents don’t?
“Young people might not want their peers, their teachers, or even their parents to know about their choice to get vaccinated,” said associate professor Fazel.
“It could be that they are worried what their friends think, for example, and what they may need is a way to get vaccinated while feeling safe and comfortable. We must ensure these opportunities are provided for.”
As with most existing vaccines, children under the age of 16 can get their Covid jab without parental consent if they are deemed competent to make that decision on their own, provided a clinician has assessed them.
This was confirmed by Nadim Zahawi, now secretary of state for education, and until recently the vaccines minister.
“On the very rare occasion where there is a difference of opinion between the parent and the 12 to 15-year-old – where the parent for example doesn’t want to give consent but the 12 to 15-year-old wants to have the vaccine – then the first step is the clinician will bring the parent and the child together to see whether they can reach consent,” Zahawi told Sky News this month.
If a child and their parent or guardian can’t agree, a doctor will apply the Gillick competence, which checks a child’s capacity to consent themselves.
As the vaccine is rolled out to more schools, resources are needed to ensure students trust its safety, said the researchers behind the OxWell School Survey.
They added that this clear health messaging needs to be:
targeted at school-aged children but also their parents/caregivers
delivered and provided in a format, and in locations, where diverse members of the population can access it
shared by trusted sources on social media, where young people who are the most vaccine-hesitant are most likely to source information
The study’s co-authors also stressed the need to target hard-to-reach children and their parents or caregivers. “There are similarities with adult populations in that those from more deprived socioeconomic backgrounds are more hesitant to have the vaccine,” said Dr Simon R White, senior research associate at the University of Cambridge of the data collected in the survey.
Professor Russell Viner, from UCL’s Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, added: “Our findings suggest it will be essential to reach out and engage with young people from poorer families and communities with lower levels of trust in vaccination and the health system.
“A school-based vaccination programme, as planned in England, is one way of helping reduce these health disparities. However, the teenagers who are least engaged with their school communities may need additional support for us to achieve the highest uptake levels.”