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ROME – As Europe rolls out its vaccination campaign for young children this week, a top Vatican official has endorsed the move, saying children have been uniquely impacted by the pandemic, and must be protected and cared for.
Speaking to Crux, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said, “The pandemic has not only affected elderly people, in Italy and around the world, but also children and adolescents.”
Younger generations have mainly been affected through school closures, presenting challenges not only in terms of ensuring an adequate education, but also building and maintaining social relationships and the added stress many have faced at home due to the economic fallout of COVID-19.
“The psychological consequences – not just health – of the pandemic will be seen in the coming years, in the medium and long-term. Our children and adolescents of today, what adults will they be?” Paglia said.
Society at large, including governments, educators, and religious leaders, “must care for the young,” he said, saying an in-depth reflection is not only needed but “urgent” in order to better respond “to the fear of the future.”
“Hope and concreteness of action are the two watchwords of our time,” he said.
Part of caring for young people means getting them vaccinated, Paglia said, noting that vaccinations for children aged 5-11 has been authorized by health authorities in both the United States and Europe.
“Vaccination protects children from any, even if less frequent, serious consequence of COVID-19,” he said, noting that even if children show no symptoms, they can still spread the virus, so taking every precaution, including vaccines, is necessary.
The decision to vaccinate children, although disputed, is “a positive sign,” he said, because “society takes care of the weakest, thinking above all of protecting the future of new generations.”
In the United States, a small dose of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 5-11 was authorized in October, with the first shots being administered Nov. 3.
Several nations throughout Europe began their own vaccination campaigns for young children Wednesday in a bid to keep the Omicron variant at bay and to keep schools open.
Germany, Spain, Greece, and Hungary were among the countries who began drives for vaccinating younger kids. In Italy, the campaign began Thursday, with just the region of Lazio making an early start Wednesday. Italy’s northern regions of Alto Adige and Valle d’Aosta will start later, on Dec. 18 and 20, respectively.
In Greece, there have already been more than 30,000 registered vaccine appointments for young children.
While it is still too soon to determine what the overall vaccination rate of young children will be in Europe, the campaign has gotten off to a slow start in the United States, where just 5 million of the 28 million eligible U.S. children between ages 5-11 have received at least one dose.
Experts predict that at the current pace, fewer than half of U.S. children in that age group are expected to be fully vaccinated in the coming months, with thousands of vaccines gathering dust in some states.
The issue of vaccines, and the vaccination of young children, are both touched on in two documents set to be published by the Pontifical Academy for Life which evaluate the impact of the coronavirus on children titled, “The Pandemic and the Challenge of Education,” and, “Children and COVID-19: The Most Vulnerable Victims of the Pandemic.”
In his comments to Crux, Paglia insisted that vaccines protect “both those who take them and others.”
“We must not forget the merit of the great vaccination campaigns of history: Against polio, against smallpox, for example,” he said, adding, “If our planet is developed in the twentieth century, it is also due to vaccines that stopped diseases.”
In some cases, viruses such as polio “which caused the death or disability of millions and millions of people” have nearly disappeared as a result of vaccines, he said.
Noting that there are still many countries around the world struggling to get their adult populations vaccinated, Paglia said greater efforts must be made on all fronts.
“We have to do everything! Vaccinate everyone, including children, in order to protect the greatest number of people possible,” he said, adding, “we must vaccinate everyone in the sense of reaching those distant, remote territories, the most disadvantaged areas of the planet.”
The major issue is not only the quantity of vaccines available, but distribution, he said, noting that there is currently “a serious problem of distribution, of infrastructure, and technologies to be implemented.”
In many countries throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, vaccination “could be a step forward toward a greater health protection, for a more equitable and widespread access to healthcare,” he said.
“Vaccines and the situation of the pandemic teach us that inequalities are not only social, economic,” but they also involve “access to education or other essential services,” he said, insisting that “The world will come out stronger only if it is more united, more just, more ‘fraternal,’ and healthier!”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen