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Parents should have all scientific facts on jabs for children, GSD says

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The GSD insisted yesterday that it was acting responsibly by highlighting different scientific views on the potential benefits and risks of vaccinating children in the 12 to 15 age group.

The Opposition was reacting after being accused by the Gibraltar Government of pandering to the antivax lobby instead of protecting children, an accusation it described as “an outrageous lie typical of a government that only knows that style in defending itself”.

Earlier this week, the Gibraltar Government took the decision to offer vaccines children aged between 12 to 15 on the advice of the Medical Director at the Gibraltar Health Authority and the Director of Public Health.

That advice was issued after the four Chief Medical Officers in the UK gave the green light to vaccinate 12 to 15-year olds across the UK.

But after the announcement, the GSD noted that the UK’s decision – and Gibraltar’s subsequent one - had been taken despite the reservations of the UK Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation [JCVI], which had held back from making the recommendation to jab children.

The GSD’s note of caution drew stern responses from the Gibraltar Government and Together Gibraltar, both of which separately accused the Opposition of acting irresponsibly.

In the latest in a string of exchanges, the GSD stuck to its position and the advice of the JCVI, the body of scientific experts tasked with advising the UK Government on vaccinations.

It also said the accusations levelled at the party were unfair.

“How can pointing to the advice of the JCVI be to pander to the antivax lobby?” asked Keith Azopardi, the Leader of the Opposition.

“It is simply to point to the highest and most credible scientific advice in the UK.”

“This is the body that advises the UK Government on all vaccination issues.”

“The JCVI has not recommended that healthy 12-25yr olds be vaccinated because of ‘uncertainty’ of long-term health effects and because of its ‘marginal benefit’.”

In a lengthy statement, the GSD noted that the JCVI had weighed the health benefit to children and young people against any potential harms from vaccination.

The JCVI set out that there was “…a very low risk of serious disease in those aged 12 to 15 years without an underlying health condition that puts them at increased risk. Given this very low risk, considerations on the potential harms and benefits of vaccination are very finely balanced.”

In its advice, the JCVI stated that for every million first doses of the vaccine to healthy 12 to 15-year-olds, it was likely that 87 hospitalisations and two ICU admissions for Covid-19 would be prevented, but that there was a risk of between three to 17 cases of heart inflammation to children.

The GSD said it was important to put all of these facts in front of parents and children so that they could properly decide whether to take up the vaccine.

It noted that the government, in announcing the jabs for children, had referred to the advice of the Chief Medical Officers in the UK but not to the JCVI’s reservations.

And it baulked at being accused of acting irresponsibly or pandering to the antivax lobby, insisting all it was doing was placing facts before parents and children so that they could make informed choices.

“In calling the GSD ‘rash and misguided’ for simply pointing to the JCVI advice, the Government is in effect saying the JCVI are also rash and misguided which is a bizarre position,” the Opposition said in a statement.

COMPLEX ISSUE

The issue is a complex one because the decision to vaccinate children is based on multiple factors ranging from health benefits to the impact on schooling and wider community transmission.

The JCVI, in its published advice, said it had considered the impact of vaccination on otherwise healthy children aged between 12 and 15.

“Overall, the committee is of the opinion that the benefits from vaccination are marginally greater than the potential known harms but acknowledges that there is considerable uncertainty regarding the magnitude of the potential harms,” the committee said in its advice.

“The margin of benefit, based primarily on a health perspective, is considered too small to support advice on a universal programme of vaccination of otherwise healthy 12 to 15-year-old children at this time.”

“As longer-term data on potential adverse reactions accrue, greater certainty may allow for a reconsideration of the benefits and harms. Such data may not be available for several months.”

But the committee acknowledged too that its guidance was focused solely on health issues, and that there were other factors at play that could influence a final decision on whether to vaccinate youngsters.

“JCVI has considered commentary from stakeholders on the benefits of vaccination on the operation of schools and the educational impact of the pandemic on children and young people,” it said in the advice.

“JCVI is constituted with expertise to allow consideration of the health benefits and risks of vaccination and it is not within its remit to incorporate in-depth considerations on wider societal impacts, including educational benefits.”

“The [UK] government may wish to seek further views on the wider societal and educational impacts from the chief medical officers of the four nations, with representation from JCVI in these subsequent discussions.”

That, in effect, is what happened. Having considered the matter, the four Chief Medical Officers of the UK nations decided to give the green light to a vaccination programme for children, a move that triggered Gibraltar’s own decision.

The GSD said that by omitting to reflect the JCVI’s position, the government had taken a “simplistic and artificial” stance and was “losing credibility” having taken a policy decision that the committee had not recommended.

The Opposition acknowledged that the UK Government had taken the same decision based on wider reasons on advice of its public health officials.

But it said the Chief Medical Officers had also recognised that the risk-benefit balance for children was “not as clear cut” in the 12 to 15 age group, and that youngsters and parents would need to understand the potential benefits and side effects in order to reach a balanced decision.

“That is precisely what the GSD are doing in making people aware of the JCVI advice,” the party said.

In their advice to the UK Government, the Chief Medical Officers said “…it is essential that children and young people aged 12 to 15 are supported in their decision, whatever decisions they take, and are not stigmatised either for accepting or not accepting the vaccination offer. Individual choice should be respected.”

The GSD maintained that highlighting the JCVI guidance was the responsible thing to do in order to enable parents and children to make informed decisions.

The party accepted that there were wider issues that should be considered, such as the educational benefit of minimising disruption to schooling.

But that did not mean the JCVI advice should be ignored, it added.

“Worse still it is irresponsible for the Government to in effect trash the JCVI advice or anyone pointing to the JCVI advice as an antivax conspiracy when it is then purporting to follow the JCVI on many other issues,” the GSD said.

“When parents and 12–15-year-old children take a decision whether they wish to take up the offer of the vaccine it is important that the decision is taken with all the scientific facts before them.”

Mr Azopardi stressed that the GSD had supported all aspects of the vaccination programme – all its MPs are jabbed – and that in doing so, it had “followed the science”.

“To point to JCVI advice is also to follow the same science and let people decide in the context of any wider reasons or benefits to children that they accept exist,” he said.

“Or are the Government only going to present people with the scientific facts and advice when it suits their policy position? That would be an alarming position for the Government to take.”

“It is precisely because we are concerned about children that we point to that advice.”

“Ultimately it is a fairly weighty consideration for parents to have in mind that the JCVI have not recommended vaccination for non-vulnerable 12–15- year-olds.”

“This is the same JCVI that backed adult vaccination and vaccination of 16–18-year-olds as well as vulnerable teenagers.”

“The Government needs to back away from the arrogant position that they are the only ones who care for children or that unless you agree with their views on everything it is bad for children. That is plain nonsense.”

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