It has been more than four months since Health Canada approved the first COVID-19 vaccine for children under five, but national uptake has been low.
The latest numbers from the Public Health Agency of Canada show, as of Oct. 9, 6.5 per cent of kids under five have received one dose of vaccine, while one per cent have received two doses.
By comparison, 86.9 per cent of Canadians five and older have received one dose, while 84.2 per cent have received two doses.
“Coverage for COVID vaccination for kids under five is quite strikingly low,” said Shannon MacDonald, a nursing professor at the University of Alberta who leads the university’s applied immunization research team.
MacDonald said that parents have different approaches to their older kids than their younger kids.
‘A parental choice’
“We’ve seen that, with COVID vaccines, that what you’re willing to do with a 12-year-old is different from what you’re willing to do with a five-year-old, [and that’s] different than a two-year-old,” she said.
“It’s partly around a parental choice thing.”
MacDonald said access also plays a role, noting that vaccinations rolled out across the country by age, and that means families may have already made multiple trips to clinics.
In Canada, she said, the uptake for routine childhood immunizations is “typically around 80 per cent plus” — but the COVID-19 vaccination may be seen as different because it’s new.
“It hasn’t been around; parents are maybe a bit concerned about the long-term picture of what that will look like,” she said. “The behaviours and attitudes for parents are very different around COVID vaccination.”
Though public health measures have been dropped across the country, the pandemic is not over. But health officials across Canada have said it’s clear that many people’s perception of the pandemic has changed.
A sense of complacency
Vaccines for kids under five “got rolled out later, at a point in the pandemic where I think Canadians, in general, are not seeing COVID-19 as much of a threat either for the children themselves or for the population at large,” said Dr. Jesse Papenburg, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the Montreal Children’s Hospital.
And if other family members with high-risk conditions have already gotten their vaccines or boosters, Papenburg said, parents may now believe there’s less immediate need to get their kids vaccinated.
But while children are at a lower risk of developing serious illness from COVID than others, some do still experience complications — and it can be at random, the specialist said.
“It’s hard to predict which ones are going to require hospitalization, which ones might be more complicated, as most of the kids who are hospitalized with Omicron actually don’t have an underlying risk factor.”
No question for some parents
For Alyssa Paterson, there was never a question of whether or not to vaccinate her two-year-old daughter Avery.
“We always knew we were going to do it,” Paterson said. “We’ve gotten all of her other vaccinations. I follow a lot of scientists online — all have vaccinated their children.”
Since vaccinating Avery, Paterson has felt more comfortable putting her daughter in activities such as swimming and gymnastics near the family’s home in Edmonton.
She said she can understand why parents may be nervous or feel hesitant about the vaccine, but she encourages them to look at the science behind it.
“Every parent just wants to protect their child and everyone’s doing the best they can and making the decisions they feel are right for them and their family.”
Heading into winter
As temperatures drop and the holidays draw nearer, more people will be heading indoors, and Papenburg said families should consider getting everyone vaccinated.
“The more people in that household who have been vaccinated with the primary series or have had a recent booster vaccine … that will help reduce the risk of transmission within the household as well,” he said.
A soaring number of children have been getting respiratory viruses this fall, and doctors say the COVID-19 vaccine could provide the youngest age group with an extra line of defence.
“That group is a group where we know there’s a lot of transmission … of all virus right now,” said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta.
“To enhance any protection against ongoing exposures in care settings into families is really very valuable.”
And as variants evolve, prior vaccination could offer some degree of protection, especially when it comes to serious illness and hospitalization, according to Papenburg.
“I think that’s our greatest concern is that, if there is another variant, will we be ready and will our pediatric population be protected in as adequate a way as we can?”
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