Prioritise vulnerable in poor nations ahead of children in vaccine roll-out, Unicef chief says

'Many more vaccines are needed than are currently available,' said UN children’s fund's Mena regional director

A medic from the "Syria Immunization Group" NGO administers the COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccine to a patients with chronic diseases, at a camp for the internally displaced near Marret Misrin town, in the north of Syria's rebel-held Idlib governorate, on June 14, 2021. / AFP / OMAR HAJ KADOUR

Children should be at the back of the queue for Covid-19 vaccines, with priority given to the vulnerable in low-income countries, a  United Nations children's fund leader has said.

Many developing nations remain without access to widespread vaccines for their most at-risk communities.

Until that changes, the wider world is unlikely to pull out of the pandemic and will continue to be at risk of new viral mutations, said Ted Chaiban, Mena director with Unicef.

What is critical now is to accelerate this roll-out to make sure vaccines are available as quickly as possible

"It is important to go in the order of priorities," Mr Chaiban told The National.

“Before getting to children, it is important to vaccinate high-risk groups in all countries, and the emphasis should be on that.

"We still need vaccines for front-line workers in many countries – such as Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Djibouti.

“Many more vaccines are needed than are currently available."

Mr Chaiban said these groups should be a priority, rather than extending coverage to low-risk groups in high-income countries.

Only after the high-risk groups, such as those with health conditions and the elderly, should governments advocate vaccines for the wider population.

“It is a wonderful development that several of the vaccines are safe for children, and they should have vaccines, but that sequencing is very important," he said.

In the US, an emergency designation to allow younger school age children to be vaccinated is unlikely to be authorised until the start of the new school year, with toddlers and babies not vaccinated until the end of the year.

Ted Chaiban, UNICEF Regional Director for Middle East & North Africa on June 15th, 2021. 
Antonie Robertson / The National.
Reporter: Nic Webster for National

In the UK, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is unlikely to recommend the vaccination of under-18s, despite regulators granting approval for use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in children aged 12 and older.

Experts recommend surplus supplies are instead shipped around the world to support developing nations with little existing community protection against Covid-19.

UAE health authorities have also approved the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use for children aged between 12 and 15, with hundreds of pupils over 16 already inoculated.

The Department of Health Abu Dhabi announced a trial of the Sinopharm vaccine in 900 children aged between three and 17 to study their immune response.

Leaders sound alarm bells over pace of vaccine roll-out

A warning from the World Health Organisation that the virus is moving faster than the global vaccine rollout has sounded alarm bells in some quarters.

The G7 Summit held in the UK saw the group of seven industrialised powers commit an extra 870 million doses to the WHO-led Covax vaccine alliance, which aims to secure doses for poor countries.

But that is a fraction of the 11 billion vaccines required worldwide to offer 70 per cent protection that could see Covid-19 finally in retreat.

Covax has shipped far fewer vaccines to emerging nations than hoped.

So far, just 87 million doses have been distributed to 131 countries.

A team at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in the US examined how refugees and displaced populations would struggle to access the Covid-19 vaccine.

At current rates, poorer countries may not be able to widely vaccinate their populations until 2023, its data found.

“We welcome the announcement of the G7 summit [of the vaccine pledge],” said Mr Chaiban.

"What is critical now is to accelerate this rollout to make sure vaccines are available as quickly as possible.

“Funding is required for the dissemination of those vaccines, and this needs about $650 million to support that.

“Support is needed for the internal logistics to reach vaccination points, like village clinics and hospitals.

“Our concerns have been focused on low and middle-income countries without the wherewithal or connections to access vaccines commercially in the same manner as high income countries.

“No one is safe until everyone is safe and it will prevent the global economy from functioning properly.”

A new report by the International Labour Organisation and Unicef found disruption to education during the pandemic has placed millions of children at risk from entering child labour.

The number of children in child labour has risen to 160 million worldwide – an increase of 8.4 million children in the last four years.

Those aged between 5 and 17 in hazardous work – defined as work that is likely to harm their health, safety or morals – has risen by 6.5 million, to 79 million, since 2016.

Mr Chaiban said hybrid-learning with children attending school in shifts with the same cohort is likely to be developed in many countries ahead of the new school year in September.

“It is essential we support children with a resumption of public health activities in low and middle-income countries, and a continuation of schools is essential to that,” he said.

“Some children have only been intermittently engaging with learning for the last 18 months.

“It is extremely important we do not lose another school year and children can get back into the classroom in September.”