Even if younger persons are not at risk for severe COVID-19 illness, the risk remains of getting it and spreading it
Although COVID-19 in younger persons is sometimes milder than in adults, some youth infected with the coronavirus can get severe lung infections, become very sick and require hospitalization. The youth can also have complications such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome that may require intensive care or long-lasting symptoms that affect their health and well-being.
Therefore, it is important for younger persons to get vaccinated as it is for the vulnerable members. If you contract COVID and you get severely ill, you are required to isolate. This will result in you missing out on all the social benefits in life such as your education or earning an income. Avoid a severe infection which is an unpleasant experience and get vaccinated so you can enjoy life.
The vaccine helps prevent or reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Health experts at the Western Cape Department of Health are unanimous in that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks, for everyone. The risk of COVID-19 infection and especially severe disease is much higher in unvaccinated compared to vaccinated people. Even during the Omicron wave, the risk of death in breakthrough cases in the Western Cape was nearly four times lower than in unvaccinated cases, and the risk of all hospital admissions in unvaccinated cases was twice as high as vaccinated cases.
Getting the COVID-19 vaccine can protect everyone – including younger persons, reducing the chance that they transmit the virus to family members and friends who may be more susceptible to severe consequences of the infection.
Lelethu Tyoni, (14), Athenkosi Jita (16) and Bonele Thole (14) from Khayelitsha said they get their booster “to protect our families and friends, COVID-19 is real".
So what are the benefits for each individual?
All available data on the efficacy of the vaccine indicates that vaccination reduces the risk of dying. We know that older adults are at much higher risk for dying of COVID-19 but as we have seen during the fourth wave, with the prevalence of the Omicron variant, anyone can get infected and if you are not vaccinated your risk of being hospitalized is higher.
Our local data assures us that vaccination reduces the risk of severe infections, hospitalisation and need for oxygen and ICU in teenagers. During the fourth wave (from 28 November 2021 to 28 January 2022) in the under 20-year-olds the proportion of younger people getting severely ill has not changed from previous waves, but remains a key area where vaccination can increase immunity:
- There were 12 546 diagnosed COVID-19 cases in this age group which constitutes 10.5% of the total cases during the 4th wave.
- 1 135 admissions (12.4% of the total admissions) with a positive COVID-19 diagnosis (a combination of COVID-19 incidental or related admission, admitted for reasons unrelated to COVID-19, but tested per hospital protocol, or subsequent symptoms).
- There were 21 deaths (also a combination of “due to COVID” or “died with COVID symptoms) or 1.7% under 20 of the total deaths.
These statistics do not reflect the true impact a coronavirus infection has on a person. If symptomatic you need to isolate which means you miss out on days with family, friends and all those special occasions in life. Vaccines help your body fight it and cope better with it.
Benefits of vaccination, especially in preventing long-term illness
What younger persons also do not understand is that vaccination helps to avoid long COVID-19 (fatigue, brain fog, chronic lung disease, chronic loss of smell or taste). Long COVID can occur even in young healthy people who have mild or asymptomatic infections. In some children and teens who have had COVID, it has gone on to trigger autoimmune diseases such as juvenile arthritis – the vaccine can prevent this.
A key driver for vaccination is that it not only offers individual protection but also brings collective benefit for communities as it reduces the risk of transmission and helps to develop community protection. By vaccinating teenagers, the risk of them transmitting the virus to others including their grandparents who are vulnerable, their parents, peers and teachers at school and to others in the community. We know teenagers are socially active which translates to groups gatherings at social events (parties) or other events where avoiding crowds and confined spaces might be impossible. If there are many unvaccinated people in the community it leads to more virus transmission for everyone (both vaccinated and unvaccinated).
Most recently, due to high vaccination coverage, Denmark lifted all of its domestic Covid-19 restrictions, including the wearing of face masks, making it the first European Union country to do so. Norway followed a day later. With more than 80% of the population vaccinated and over 60% having received boosters, Denmark has opened its nightlife with nightclubs operating again. Though it still has some limitations on gatherings, masks are no longer required in shops, restaurants, and on public transport. This is what all countries strive towards, and it can only be reached if many more people, especially younger persons take up vaccination.
Virgil Appolis aged 20, received his booster and said, "I chose to get vaccinated to make a difference in my community. I want to be the change!"
This transmission also provides a chance for the virus to mutate further and create a new variant that might prove more infectious or resistant to the available vaccines and therapies. Fewer overall infections among the population means less chance of severe infection and death in the community and of dangerous coronavirus variants emerging.
Ensuring our vulnerable community members (50 years and older) are vaccinated remains a key focus for us. However, if someone in their household is unvaccinated, they do pose a risk to them. This is because no vaccine is 100% effective, and if exposed to an unvaccinated teenager, the vulnerable adult may still have a breakthrough infection. Although they have protection from their own vaccine, infectious strains will continue to pose some risk.
Simone Martin, from Grassy Park (24) on getting her booster added “Everyone in my household is vaccinated. Covid has not gone away so I chose to vaccinate to protect me, my family and others around me”.
During the previous waves, many teenagers have been infected with COVID-19 which has provided natural immunity, however the immune response mounted is extremely variable and unpredictable. People who had mild infections may not mount a high enough immune response. Therefore, the vaccine is designed to induce a standardised, controlled immune response to the body. The antibodies created and T-cells stimulated by the vaccine provide a more reliable immunity that is longer lasting and more efficient at dealing with new variants of virus.
What’s at the end of the rainbow?
If more adolescents have been vaccinated and a higher population is immune, we could start to imagine a life as we knew it - there will be less requirements which have impacted on everyone’s social freedom.
People who are vaccinated are able to travel to other countries, we will be able to go to live sporting events and enter nightclubs. Schools are also now returning to normal by reintroducing sporting and social activities and scrapping rotational schooling.
Timothy Viljoen, (12) received his Pfizer booster dose at the Vaxi “Trokkie” in Scottsville. "I want to be vaccinated to be safe and I want my friends to be safe. We're back at school now and we learn and play together every day, so we need to be safe."
The risk of getting COVID infection far outweighs the risk of vaccination in teenagers. So, whether you want to go back to normal, protect your family, socialise, attend live events; vaccination is our way to get there together.