France begins vaccinating teenagers in difficult bid to reach herd immunity

·4-min read

France has expanded its Covid-19 inoculation drive to children aged 12 and over to “accelerate the movement towards herd immunity” and slow the spread of variants.

The vaccinations are not compulsory for children and have no bearing on whether they can attend school or go on holiday in France. But a vaccination certificate will allow them to get into larger events like festivals, gigs, sporting events and – as of 1 July – travel within the EU and Schengen zone.

As demand for Covid vaccines slows among French adults the government is hoping that enough children will be willing to be immunised - and that their parents will also approve – in order to reach the 80-percent population coverage that experts consider is needed to halt the spread of the virus.

France has a long way to go.

While just over 30 million people (58 percent of adults) have received at least one vaccine dose in France, only 27.4 percent have received the two injections needed for maximum protection.

Good start

The Doctolib website, a privately run company that coordinates France's online vaccination appointments, showed an encouraging level of interest among the under-18s.

"It's a nice surprise, take-up is higher than expected," Doctolib chief Stanislas Niox-Chateau said, noting that vaccination appointments had been made for 62,000 under-18s since Monday, when the site began taking bookings for children.

That accounted for a quarter of all the day's reservations.

Teenagers outside the Claude Bernard high school in Paris had an open mind on the issue.

“I want to be able to get out and travel,” one girl told RFI. Her male classmate was in less of a hurry saying: “I’d like to have it but not straightaway, I want to see how people react first.”

Down in the southern city of Marseille, teenagers were queuing up outside the testing centre at the Velodrome stadium on Tuesday.

14-year-old Lea Levy had skipped school especially to come and said she wanted to "protect fragile family members and be able to go everywhere this summer”.

Key players in obtaining herd immunity

The rollout of the vaccine to minors went ahead despite France's national ethics committee expressing reservations about the decision.

"Is it ethical to make minors responsible, in terms of collective benefit, for the refusal of a part of the adult population to get vaccinated?" the committee asked in a note last week.

But Dr. Pascal Le Roux, head of paediatrics in Le Havre hospital group, told RFI it was “starting to be the right moment to go ahead” in order to work towards herd immunity and avoid further lockdowns.

Some youngsters had suffered “in quite a severe way” during lockdown with a “25-30 percent increase in mental health problems”.

There is limited data on how effective vaccination against Covid-19 is among teenagers. "The clinical trial on the Pfizer vaccine showed 100 percent efficacy for the 12-15 age group," Le Roux said, "compared to 94-95 percent for the 16-55 group."

As for side effects, the paediatrician said they were closely monitoring the situation but cited a recent pharmacology report which had registered just seven cases of a cardiac ailment, known as myocarditis, in young people having received the Covid-19 vaccine.

“When you look at the detail, it’s a very low incidence: 1 for 20,000 cases,” he said, adding that only three young teenagers were among the cases, the others being young adults of 18 and 19.

“There are an infinitely small number of cases and they were benign; three days in hospital, and that was it.”

Vaccination campaign slowing down

The French government considers vaccinating teenagers will “accelerate the movement towards herd immunity” and research at the Pasteur Institute suggests that requires least 80 percent of the population being immunised.

But if variants - such as the very contagious Delta variant - take a foothold in France as it has in the UK, that figure could be more like 90 percent.

The emphasis on vaccinating teenagers has increased as demand for first vaccine shots is beginning to taper off.

Health data shows a quarter of the over 80s and a third of the 60-69 age group have still not received a first dose.

Difficulties in getting an appointment or travelling to a health centre may be part of the explanation. But there are also concerns that people are delaying vaccination to ensure the second shot does not fall during their summer holidays.

French health authorities have promised to make it easier for people to get second doses when on holiday.

Opinion polls say close to 81 percent of the French are prepared to get vaccinated against Covid-19, much higher than earlier surveys suggested, although some 20 percent remained opposed.

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