Last week my 13-year-old daughter “S” was offered the Covid vaccine at her school in England. I consented, as required, but made it clear that the final decision about whether to go ahead was hers. By this age, she is aware and responsible enough to be making decisions about her own body, with support, and crucially, clear information about what will be happening and why.
We are a pro-vaccination family, although we have friends who aren’t – we have chosen to stay off the topic with them. My daughter is at an age where she seeks out a lot of information online, so I directed her to some websites to read up more widely about it, while emphasising the reasons why it was my strong preference for her to have the vaccine. S’s 15-year-old cousin was targeted outside school by anti-vaxxers a few weeks ago. When that happened, both S and her cousin were dismissive of the anti-vax arguments, and they thought gathering outside schools was totally inappropriate. These aren’t isolated incidents, sadly: this week there have been further reports of “sinister” anti-vax protests at schools in Liverpool.
On the day S was due to get her vaccine in school, we had a final discussion about it. “Some of the kids are saying they won’t have it because they can’t see how it helps them,” she told me. “But I think that there’s a benefit to me being able to see grandma without worrying about infecting her. And I can’t face school closing again, so I’m a bit stressed, but I’m going to do it.”
Take-up at the school was low, partly because there was an issue with the consent form being difficult for some parents to access. Ultimately, S was the only child in her class to have the vaccine, with about 20% of her entire year group taking it up. She came home with a sore arm and slight headache, but other than that she was fine. She said that the vaccination team talked her through what was going to happen, and double-checked that she was sure before they went ahead.
All was well until the following day, when another child in her class declared that because S had the vaccine, that meant she had now been injected with Covid – so if anyone went near her she would pass Covid on to them. This resulted in several children moving away from her, and refusing to sit beside her during lessons or at lunchtime.
S came home extremely distressed and confused. Believing, rightly, that having the vaccine means that she’s safer in terms of transmission than the other unvaccinated children in her class, she wondered why she was the one to be singled out by an ill-informed child?
I contacted the school, who quickly assured me that they would sort this out, particularly as they want to encourage more vaccine take-up. But it’s not hard to imagine that other children in the class, having seen what happened to my daughter, will now be wary of getting the vaccine for fear of being singled out.
I very much doubt that my daughter is the only child in the country to have received this kind of reaction from schoolmates. On top of that, there are the pressures some children will be facing from their families not to have the vaccine, often because of concerns that it may not be safe for young people.
I’m worried that part of the reason for a slow uptake of the vaccine among 12 to 15-year-olds is that their issues around it are not being addressed adequately: there’s a sense that they are just being tacked on at the end of the successful adult rollout. They need to be addressed directly and clearly, and their concerns listened to. I’ve seen a lot of “what I need to know about my child and the vaccine” articles for parents in recent weeks, but there don’t seem to be many equivalents for 12 to 15-year-olds to read themselves. Reels and videos on social media help, particularly those made by people in the same age group, but surely there needs to be more official – and factchecked – dedicated communications for teens who may have concerns about the vaccine.
We live in the north-west, one of the worst-hit places in the country for Covid, and my daughter remains proud that she has played her part in tackling the virus. However, she still spent the weekend worried about going back into school as she felt that she was now a social pariah – thankfully this didn’t turn out to be the case. She says that she would have had the vaccine anyway if she’d known this was going to happen, but I’m not quite so sure. Social pressure in school can be difficult to handle.
There are reports that the education secretary is considering writing to every individual in this age group to urge them to be vaccinated. That’s a start, but there needs to be a far stronger campaign to ensure that as many young people as possible get vaccinated – and they can do so without misinformation, anti-vax intimidation or fear of bullying.