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COVID-19 vaccination low among young Alberta children ahead of predicted fall surge

More than a month after Alberta children under five became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, uptake is slower than expected, and some experts are urging parents to consider the shot as fall approaches.

According to provincial data, 4.6 per cent of kids between the ages of six months and four years have had their first dose.

“It’s a bit disappointing but not surprising,” said Edmonton pediatrician Dr. Sam Wong, who’s also president of the pediatrics section with the Alberta Medical Association.

According to Wong, a number of factors are likely at play in the low vaccination rate for young kids, including timing.

Children in the under-five age group became eligible for vaccine appointments at the height of summer — the beginning of August — when many people were either on holidays or simply not thinking about COVID-19, Wong said.

“I wonder if the uptake will increase as school starts up … as the weather starts cooling off [and as] more kids get sick [and] more adults get sick. I think that might change the dynamics of the situation,” he said.

Dr. Sam Wong is president of the pediatrics section with the Alberta Medical Association. He works at the Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton. (Submitted by Sam Wong)

Wong said he’s not fielding many questions about COVID-19 shots from parents at his clinic these days, and he suspects vaccine hesitancy may also be contributing to the low uptake.

“I understand … it’s a number’s game. People will say, ‘Well, the risk is pretty low, so therefore I’m alright with that risk.’ But if your child happens to be that one kid in a thousand that ends up in the ICU, that’s the gamble you take. Certainly I would want my child vaccinated.”

Lack of vaccine messaging

While the risk of severe disease in young children is low, it’s not zero according to Craig Jenne, an associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary.

“We have unfortunately had kids hospitalized here in Alberta in this age group, and even in the ICU,” Jenne said.

Craig Jenne is an associate professor in the department of microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary. (Colin Hall/CBC)

“We really do want to see a little better uptake of this. We want to see a larger percentage of the population protected. And we really want to use all of the tools we have to keep these youngest Albertans out of the hospital.”

Jenne expects COVID cases will rise in the fall as the weather cools, and he’s urging parents to have their children vaccinated.

“We have seen the last two years that there has been a predictable spike in cases as people move back indoors,” he said.

“In addition  to the initial clinical trials we’ve seen a lot of real world data. We know that these vaccines are safe. We know that they work.”

For all age groups the messaging has really gone quiet on vaccines.– Craig Jenne, microbiology, immunology and infectious diseases professor

Jenne is worried about a lack of messaging from the province about vaccination for all ages, and he’d like to see more public awareness campaigns in the weeks ahead.

“For all age groups the messaging has really gone quiet on vaccines,” he said.

Although breakthrough infections occur, Jenne said COVID-19 immunizations have played a critical role in mitigating symptomatic and severe disease, hospitalization and deaths.

“Although we did see increased numbers of infection and breakthrough infections, the percentage of people hospitalized dropped within those vaccinated populations, and we really have not been pointing that out.”

Jenne said he urges parents with any questions or concerns about the vaccine to talk to their healthcare providers.

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