How is Spain’s Covid vaccination campaign for children aged 5 to 11 going?

Almost a month since Spain approved a milder version of the Covid-19 vaccine for children aged 5 to 11, we look at the stats that reveal the progress being made and how it compares to other European countries.

vaccine child spain covid
Spain's vaccination campaign for children is progressing at a faster rate than in most other European countries. Photo: Iakovos Hatzistavrou / AFP

On December 7th 2021, Spain’s Public Health Commission approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine for young children, following the green light given by the European Medicines Agency a few days earlier. 

The approval of this milder dose – a third of the strength of an adult dose (10 micrograms instead of 30) – came at a time when children under 12 were the age group with the highest infection rate in Spain.

Within eight days, the first batch of 1.3 million doses had been distributed across Spain and the campaign had officially kicked off, with each region deciding whether to vaccinate young children at vaccination centres, schools or hospitals.

READ MORE: How Spain will vaccinate five to 11 year-olds against Covid

Spain has famously led the way in terms of Europe’s vaccination drive, with just under 90 percent of the eligible population 12 and over fully vaccinated.

But have Spanish parents been just as willing to have their children vaccinated against Covid-19?

By January 3rd 2021, of the 3.3 million children aged 5 to 11 in Spain, 29 percent had received their first dose. That equates to just over 964,000 young children.

Five days earlier, it stood at 24.6 percent, which showcases that despite New Year celebrations, the vaccination campaign for this age group is progressing at an average rate of 1 percent a day.

There are of course regional disparities. In the northern region of Cantabria 43 percent of children aged 5 to 11 have received their first dose whereas in the Balearic Islands the rate is 15 percent. 

The differences aren’t necessarily all down to more reluctance from parents in certain areas as regional health authorities are not organising their campaigns in the same way, and some have only opened up vaccine appointments to the specific ages rather than the whole 5 to 11 age group. 

In a survey published in mid-December by market research company Appinio, 74 percent of parents in Spain said they would have their young children vaccinated against Covid-19, 13.7 percent said they were undecided and 12 percent answered that they would not. 

Comparing the vaccination rates among young children with neighbouring countries reveals that Spain is once again one of the main inoculation proponents in Europe.

Italy, which approved the vaccination of 5 to 11-year-olds on December 1st, has given the first dose to 10 percent of children in this age group whereas in Germany the rate was 8.2 percent on January 3rd. 

In France, where the paediatric vaccine campaign kicked off two weeks ago, only 64,000 young children of the 5.8 million that are eligible had received their first dose during the first ten days.

Portugal, which started the campaign around the same time as France and has a far smaller young population, saw 88,000 children vaccinated during the first weekend, reflecting the same willingness to get everyone vaccinated as Spain.

In an article published in the Financial Times on December 30th, the London-based daily wrote that “the lack of a common message means Europe may struggle to convince parents to vaccinate their children, depriving the region of a tool to fight the latest Covid surge”.

Children aged 5 to 11 are no longer the age group with the highest infection rate in Spain but the incidence of the virus is in the “extreme” risk category, as is the case with all other age groups.

Spain continues to beat daily infection records as Omicron sweeps through the population.

On Monday January 3rd, the health ministry announced that 372,766 new infections over the New Year’s long weekend had catapulted the country’s fortnightly infection rate up 520 points to 2,295 cases per 100,000 people. 

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.