Though the Centre is yet to formally communicate with the state to chalk out plans to vaccinate the kids, state nodal officer of Covid vaccination, Munindra Nath Ngatey, told TOI that his office is planning to vaccinate most of the children on the school campuses itself. Elementary classes, where around 50 lakh kids are enrolled in Assam, are going to reopen on October 19 after these were shut in April owing to the second wave.
“Vaccinating the children is going to be comparatively easier. Kids between two and 15 years are anyway vaccinated under routine immunisation and thus we can reach out to them easily. Moreover, since all school campuses are reopening soon, the rest can be vaccinated in the schools,” said Ngatey. He said out of the total children to be vaccinated, almost 80% are likely to be tracked in schools. Nevertheless, the government health facilities will be among the first to offer the vaccine, health department officials said.
Around 12,000 Covid patients in the state are less than five years old, whereas 55,000 are between six and 18 years. Altogether 67,000 patients are below 18 years and this accounts for 11% of the total cases.
“The SEC nod to administer Covaxin for children is a huge step in our fight against Covid-19. It’s a matter of great pride that an Indian vaccine has taken this lead and is a testament to the hard work of our scientists and foresight of PM Narendra Modi,” CM Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted.
Before rolling out the vaccine for the kids, the health department, however, needs to sensitise the rural population, a significant number of whom have always been skeptical of new vaccines. Especially in the minority belt, the health department had to struggle to convince a large number of villagers initially to overcome vaccine hesitancy.
A few years ago, a large number of students in several government-run schools in interior pockets of minority-inhabited lower Assam districts like Kamrup, Nalbari and Barpeta either stopped going to school or were taken away by their guardians following social media rumours about a vaccine that could make them sterile. At that time Japanese encephalitis vaccination was accelerated in the state, though schools were not linked in any way.
During the fourth nationwide sero survey for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 published in July, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) detected sero prevalence in children on a par with adults in Assam. Children between six and 14 years were found to have similar sero prevalence in the range of 39.4% to 52.2%, as in adults. It was cautioned that besides high-risk individuals like elderly people and persons with co-morbidities, children should take extra precautions to prevent infection.
Parents breath easy
Parents too breathed a sigh of relief due to the development even as health experts say immunity levels among kids are better than adults to resist the virus.
Juri Konwar, a housewife in Dhalpur in upper Assam’s Lakhimpur district is still skeptical to send her 10 year-year-old son to the nearby government school simply for the reason that her son is not vaccinated.
She stopped her son from going to the playground last year and confined him to the courtyard of the house. The private tutor is also not allowed to stay in the house for long.
She was not enthused at the state government’s decision to reopen elementary schools from October 19, despite the fact the online classes remained disrupted on most occasions due to poor internet connectivity in this last fringe of the district — far away from the district headquarters.
But as the news of Covid vaccine for the below-18 population appeared on TV screens, she was relieved. Only a couple of weeks ago, she lost her 90-year-old father to Covid.
“The life of our children is much more important than their academic career. I would prefer online classes initially, though physical classes of my son will begin from October 19. I may not send my son to school unless he is vaccinated,” said Juri.
Amid the third wave concerns, many health experts and guardians feared that lack of vaccine shield could severely affect children’s health in case of another surge in Covid cases.
But doctors who closely dealt with Covid patients said most of the children are free from co-morbidities and can survive Covid-19 with little precaution.
“The natural immunity among the children is good as the majority of them do not have co-morbid conditions. Further, guardians nowadays bring almost all the children for routine immunization programmes. The Covid vaccine for the children will further eradicate the fears of the virus among kids,” said Dr Anupal Sarma, additional superintendent of Mahendra Mohan Choudhury Hospital, Guwahati.
Gauhati Medical College Hospital principal Dr Achyut Baishya said the kids have hardly shown any post-Covid complications. “Once the children recover from Covid, they are in good health,” he said.