Jab rollout

Adolescents getting jabbed could be ‘wake-up call’ for elders, says top prof

They also don’t need consent, but so what? ‘They make many important decisions without parents every day’

20 October 2021 - 12:55
By Tanya Farber
A child with an underlying condition receives a Pfizer vaccine. As of Wednesday, South African children aged 12 and up can receive a single dose.
Image: Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters JABS FOR YOUTHS A child with an underlying condition receives a Pfizer vaccine. As of Wednesday, South African children aged 12 and up can receive a single dose.

Prof Wolfgang Preiser from Stellenbosch University, an expert in medical virology who has been at the forefront of researching and fighting Covid-19 in SA, says he and his son are equally keen for him to get the jab.

Speaking to Sunday Times Daily this week, he gave the inside scoop on how he feels about his son facing the prospect of a Pfizer vaccination soon.

“I have an almost-12-year-old who is as keen as I am for him to get vaccinated,” he said. “I am happy for him to make his own decision. I would also not want to force him if he did not want to, and if I felt it was risky I would try to talk him out of it. But ultimately adolescents make many decisions every day, including many important ones, so I feel happy with the law as it is.”

This, however, has to be viewed in the context of older and more vulnerable groups.

There is no shortage of vaccines in SA at the moment, but the available doses, said Preiser, would have more benefit if more people in older cohorts got vaccinated.

That said, older people might be galvanised by seeing youngsters getting their jabs.

“Regarding priority groups, it would prevent more severe illness to give 100 doses of vaccine to people older than 50 than to adolescents,” he said. “But on the other hand, those groups have now had months to get their jabs and those who have not done so yet may see the adolescent vaccinations as a wake-up call.”

It will also work in favour of public health good.

“One should also not forget that those kids are very mobile and social, so reducing the burden in that group will reduce their (already not-so-huge) risk further and also prevent spread to others, including those in the risk groups. So there is an element of indirect protection, too,” he said, adding that the worst scenario would be vaccines going to waste.

Because of this, he said, “vaccine doses are better used for groups with a lower priority than going to waste”.

For Wits vaccinology professor Shabir Madhi, however, it is crucial to keep aiming for those older cohorts rather than rushing for the adolescents who are at such low risk.

“The vaccine has limited value for 12- to-17-year-olds, either from the perspective of individual protection against infection and mild Covid, and also in terms of limiting potential to decrease transmission.”

Where potential value does lie, he said, is in cases where children have already been sick with Covid-19.

“If there has been a high force of past infection, then a single dose could assist in lowering probability of children being transmitters, as priming with natural infection induces strong antibody responses to a single dose,” he said, adding that unless it could be used in a more efficient way, he would go ahead with using it for adolescents.

That more efficient way would include using it as a third dose to high-risk individuals, such as those with cancer, immunosuppressive conditions and people older than 65.

“At the same time, we need to recognise that we are doing so while the majority of high-risk people in neighbouring countries remain unprotected due to no vaccine access,” he said.