Hong Kong opened bookings for BioNTech Covid-19 vaccination shots for children as young as 12 on Friday, as leading health experts tried to drum up support for the lagging inoculation drive and one called for lowering the age threshold for Sinovac jabs as well.
Educators also welcomed the expansion of the programme, with some pledging incentives such as coupons for books, free masks and extra days off to entice secondary school pupils.
Paediatricians were planning to offer checks on children who had a history of allergies to determine whether they were recommended to receive the doses, although the plan must be approved by the Hospital Authority.
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
Individual bookings for the German-made BioNTech jabs on the government’s website opened at 9am for those aged 12 to 15, making vaccinations available to an additional 240,000 Hongkongers. Authorities announced a day ago that group vaccinations at community inoculation centres would be available from June 21 onwards, with outreach services to schools starting a week later at the earliest.
The expansion of the inoculation push came as the city confirmed no new coronavirus infections on Friday. The total case tally stands at 11,874, with 210 related deaths.
The government also said Colombia and South Korea would be added to the list of high-risk places on June 18. The arrangement means that arrivals from the two countries must present a negative Covid-19 test before arrival.
Friday marked the 106th day of the vaccination drive, but take-up has remained sluggish, with only about 15 per cent of residents fully vaccinated. Health minister Sophia Chan Siu-chee again urged parents to bring their children for vaccination.
“To create a safe learning environment and to let pupils soon resume normal campus life, we urge all parents to arrange vaccination for their children aged 12 to 15,” Chan said in a Legislative Council meeting.
Health authorities were arranging for doctors to explain vaccination-related issues to students, teachers and parents, Undersecretary for Food and Health Dr Chui Tak-yi said in the same meeting.
Dr Mike Kwan Yat-wah, a consultant at Princess Margaret Hospital’s department of paediatrics and adolescent medicine, told a radio programme that even teenagers with various allergies, such as to food or antibiotics, were suitable for vaccination. But those with an abnormally low level of blood platelets or anyone taking blood thinners should consult a doctor if they were unsure of their suitability, he advised.
Professor Lau Yu-lung, a paediatric immunologist and chairman of the government’s Scientific Committee on Vaccine Preventable Diseases, also sought to convince sceptics on a different morning radio show.
“Teenagers love having social interactions, and students in boys’ schools, for example, may want to go to joint school balls with girls after vaccination,” Lau said.
He added that schools should give two to three days of rest to vaccinated students and avoid scheduling vigorous activities such as athletic games for them in the week following the jab.
Citing overseas studies, Lau said one in 5,000 to 6,000 adolescents might develop a “rare and mild” condition called myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle. Symptoms usually began around four days after receiving the second dose, he added, with boys more at risk.
He suggested anyone who experienced chest pain, difficulty breathing or a racing pulse after vaccination should seek medical consultation.
Dr Winnie Tse Wing-yee, president of the Hong Kong College of Paediatricians, told the Post vaccination assessments were being planned for children who had a history of allergy. But the services, to be offered at Princess Margaret Hospital, Prince of Wales Hospital, Queen Elizabeth Hospital and Queen Mary Hospital, would be subject to approval of the Hospital Authority.
“We hope to reduce public worries … and address questions and concerns,” Tse said, adding the college was also producing a video about vaccination for young people and it would be distributed to schools.
Lau also argued for lowering the age threshold for receiving Sinovac jabs – currently set at 18 – citing a study by the Chinese manufacturer that found about 550 participants aged between three and 17 had a concentration of antibodies after vaccination that was higher than that seen in adults.
Sinovac said last week Chinese health authorities had approved the emergency use of its vaccine for children as young as three.
Lau said that meant the vaccine was effective among children, adding the producer could apply to local authorities for emergency approval for use in the city, even without having published its third-stage data in a peer-reviewed journal.
That view puts him at odds with another expert, Professor Ivan Hung Fan-ngai, but Lau said he was considering the overall benefits of building up an “immunity barrier” for society as soon as possible so that young people, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, could go back to school full time.
“All the child patients I’ve seen have grown heavier by five to 10kg,” Lau said, bemoaning the health impacts of home confinement during the pandemic.
Scientia Secondary School in Ho Man Tin emerged on Friday as one of the first schools to offer incentives to encourage students to get their jabs, promising a HK$50 (US$6) book coupon and free masks for each vaccinated pupil.
Tai Tak-ching, head of the Wanchai District Headmasters’ Conference, said he would use the powers of persuasion to get pupils jabbed, adding students who felt unwell could easily get a day off without a doctor’s note in most schools across the city.
One school that was considering applying to the government for an outreach team to visit the campus for vaccination this month was Gertrude Simon Lutheran College in Yuen Long, assistant principal Chan Yiu-fai said.
“The school environment is more familiar to pupils, and if parents can also join at the same time, they might be more [confident],” he said.
The school, with more than 600 students, would survey pupils and parents on their willingness to get vaccinated over the coming week, and planned to let those who wanted the shots take their first dose in late June after the end-of-year exam.
But Chan said they were not likely to provide incentives for vaccination, as he placed importance on educating parents and pupils and letting them make up their own minds.
For instance, his school invited a representative from the Department of Health to deliver a seminar on campus to teachers on Wednesday about the “costs and benefits of vaccines”. Hundreds of students and parents also joined the seminar online, he added.
Meanwhile, the government has sought approval from Legco to get another HK$2.3 billion (US$296,000) to support the operations of the city’s 21 community testing centres and mobile screening stations until September. The funding application will be handed over to Legco’s Finance Committee for scrutiny upon consent of the health services panel.
More from South China Morning Post: