January 14, 2022: While the country and the entire world is entering a spell of mass coronavirus vaccination of children, here’s an interview of leading Indian epidemiologist Dr. Amitav Banerjee by Ratna, Empire Diaries.
Dr Banerjee is Professor and Head of Community Medicine at Dr. D Y Patil Medical College in Pune. His frank words of advice for parents go against the tide, but significantly shed light on what to watch out for amid the feverish drive for mass vaccination of kids.
Question: Thank you, Dr. Banerjee, for joining Empire Diaries. I would like start the discussion with a tweet from Dr. Sanjay Rai, Prof, Centre for Community Medicine, AIIMS, Delhi. He tweeted that sero-survey by the ICMR showed that 60% children were infected with Covid and the death rate was two in a million among children, which is very low. Also, there is no study to justify that the vaccine will be beneficial for children. Can you please elaborate on this?
Answer: Certainly. The sero-survey conducted around June 2021 showed that more than 67% of adults and more than 63% children were already showing antibodies [against Covid-19], indicating that they have already recovered from natural infection at a point when the vaccination coverage was low.
Later, a sero-survey done in Delhi in September showed that about 97% of adults showed the presence of antibodies. More interestingly, 80% of the children below 18 showed antibody presence at a point when the vaccine roll-out for children was not started, which means natural infection has already run through, which has given protection to children.
But as I always say, the antibody levels underestimate the actual infection spread in the community as they wean off, but the cellular immunity (memory T-cells) almost persist indefinitely.
Studies from Israel show that immunity developed from natural [Covid] infection is 13 times stronger than vaccine-induced immunity. That means, they have already taken two doses of vaccine with 11 boosters.
Q: So, clearly you say that there’s no need to vaccinate children?
A: Anything extra is not required. The concerns for immunising children are, firstly, to prevent morbidity and mortality in them because of Covid-19. Secondly, to prevent transmission to elderly, and third, that once schools reopen, they could be the cause behind community transmission.
Studies from Europe have clearly stated that all three concerns have got no scientific basis. Coming to the mortality of children, it’s not two in a million, it’s one in a million, according to a few studies.
And among the 300-400 children who died in USA, most had comorbidities, which indicates that till date, hardly any healthy child has died from Covid. In Sweden, where schools were not closed down throughout the pandemic, studies show that only one out of 1.3 lakh children got admitted in ICU, and 15 cases of multi-inflammatory disease, which was the concern in children of which all survived despite seven having comorbidities.
Moving to the transmission aspect, 90% of times the child receives the infection from adults, but not vice versa, which is according to a published study titled “COVID-19 transmission and children: The child is not to blame”.
Reasons being that the height of the child is less than that of an adult, so the droplets reach them from adults; and the second reason being that children lack ACE receptors in their lungs where the virus latches on. Also, they have a robust thymus gland, which generates T-cells and high melatonin level, which act together to prevent virus multiplication and also protect them from suffering and transmitting the infection.
During the time when Europe suffered the worst hit, schools in Sweden continued to be open and studies stated that there was no excess mortality among children nor among schoolteachers. But the case is not so with flu (influenza). Children do bring about community transmission in flu, but are very resistant to Covid. The side effects from Covid vaccine are in 10-15 per million.
Omicron [variant’s impact] is mild in adults. The major concern is giving boosters to children for Omicron. When it’s already stated that vaccination is not helping in lowering transmission nor is Omicron causing serious hospitalisations and deaths, why go for vaccines for children?
Q: So, are you saying the vaccine may do more harm in children than good?
A: Yes, as per data available till date. The concerns are coming from various studies in western countries following vaccination. There are increasing rates of myocarditis in the male child and from the m-RNA vaccines. The spike proteins are entering and lodging in body tissue and we are still not aware as to what long-term side effects these could have.
In diseases like drug-resistant tuberculosis, the mortality [rate] is 10% with treatment. Then why don’t we give boosters to child or vaccinate the parents and elderly with the BCG vaccine? Why go for coronavirus vaccine where the mortality rate in children is just one in a million?
Every day, about 2,000 children are dying in India because of diseases like diarrhoea, other respiratory infections, Japanese encephalitis and so on.
Q: We are not talking about it. We are not publishing those data widely. Why?
A: That’s the most important question. When 300 children were dying in a month because of a mysterious fever in the districts of UP in Sept-Oct, only 187 samples were tested, and here with Covid, we test lakhs of sample for RT-PCR, which has no meaning for a disease in which the infection-fatality rate in India is 0.05%.
For the first time in medical history, just with no symptoms but just one positive lab test, we are identifying a person as a case. Survival rate following Covid infection is 99.9973% up to 18 yrs of age.
NTAGI member Dr. Jaiprakash Muliyil gave a press statement that children are safe and do not need vaccines. Its chairperson gave a statement that in the previous wave, two-third of deaths were among children aged 15-18 yrs.
Q: That tweet was later taken down.
A: Yes, but he should clarify why he said this. Such statements create panic among parents. That’s irresponsible.
Q: Amid all this, some good news is coming in from other parts of the world. Los Angeles cancelled school vaccine mandate after 30,000 kids did not comply. A San Diego judge, too, ruled that schools on their own cannot mandate the vaccine.
A: What is good news for USA is bad news for us. The unused medicines will be dumped in the global south.
Q: Can you tell us how many years it takes to make a vaccine?
A: Vaccines for polio took approximately 5-10 years to roll out in large scale. We must make sure that the vaccine needs to go through proper trials to know the long-term side effects because if a child has a long-term side effect following vaccination, it is irreversible and has to live with it for the rest of their life. Why take a chance for a disease that has a mortality of one in a million?
Cholera pandemics had mortality of 10-20%, there was no stress on the vaccine then; instead, we chose oral rehydration therapy to save lives.
Q: Doctor, final words from you. What advice would you like to give to parents? How they can balance school vaccine mandate and reality?
A: My final words are that parents are requested to file a Right to Information regarding stats of how the mortality has been among children due to Covid, and how many children have died due to other diseases [during the period of the pandemic].
Studies from Europe showed that 99.67% of deaths among all children were from causes other than Covid. Ask for break-up of data. Data on deaths for endemic diseases should also be asked for from the ministry. Panic and obesity are also contributing to Covid deaths.
For a child with comorbidity, Covid vaccination must be considered after consulting their physician, not by way of mandate. Risk-benefit must be looked at. We have no infrastructure to monitor adverse events, like what is happening in Chhattisgarh.
If this vaccine is under experimental-use authorisation, where is the control group? Our children are not guinea pigs. How can you go for mass vaccination without a control group? We are doing public health quackery with mass vaccination.
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