Utmost caution urged in vaccinating nation’s seed and blossom On the eve of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s departure to New York, Army Commander Shavendra Silva announced that the President had instructed health officials to vaccinate about 50,000 children above 12 with special needs and also to vaccinate children between 15 and 18 years of age thereafter. [...]


Tread warily when playing God with children’s lives


Utmost caution urged in vaccinating nation’s seed and blossom

On the eve of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s departure to New York, Army Commander Shavendra Silva announced that the President had instructed health officials to vaccinate about 50,000 children above 12 with special needs and also to vaccinate children between 15 and 18 years of age thereafter.

But hours before the Amy Commander’s announcement, the Deputy Director of the Health Service Dr. Hemantha Herath had already sounded his misgivings on the wisdom of vaccinating children. He told the media that though discussions were in progress, no decision had yet been taken on vaccinating children.

Dr. Herath said: “This is a serious matter. We have decided that when we vaccinate, the priority will be given to children with comorbidities. Then the rest will be vaccinated based on age groups. But we have not decided on anything else.”

A week later on September 23, at a virtual media briefing organised by the Presidential Media Centre and attended by a group of doctors, paediatrician Dr. Anuruddha Padeniya announced that the vaccination of children with congenital diseases will begin the following day and advised parents to take children who are suffering from chronic diseases to Lady Ridgeway Hospital for Children and get them vaccinated.

The Presidential Media Division’s press release also said, “the experts committee has given the approval to administer the vaccine only in hospitals, and to administer only the Pfizer vaccine to the children.” The vaccination programme for children with special needs was thus launched in the Colombo, Anuradhapura and Kurunegala districts. It was to be extended to other areas and would subsequently target healthy children in the 15-19 age group.

But three days later on September 24, the assurance given to parents that all was well was shattered by COVID Prevention Minister Dr. Sudharshani Fernandopulle when she publicly declared that she feared the vaccine may be a greater evil to children’s health than the disease itself.

EXTRA PROTECTION: Government launches vaccination drive for children with special needs

She told reporters: “Scientific researches carried out globally have underlined that COVID-19 vaccines may pose greater threat on children above 12 than coronavirus itself.  Vaccinating children above 12 years is still undecided in foreign countries and so in Sri Lanka.”

Furthermore, she added alarm when she disclosed that, apart from vaccinating children with special needs, the Government plans to vaccinate children between 15 and 18. But the decision to vaccinate such children hadn’t yet received expert sanction.

She said: “The Technical Committee, which decides on this, is still on the fence and has to carefully study the scientific research carried out on the matter. The global scientists are of the viewpoint that children are more likely to be diagnosed with vaccine-related myocarditis than ending up in hospital with COVID-19. The Technical Committee would put forward the relevant recommendations in due course giving priority to the safety of the children.’’

Her disquiet was summarily dismissed the following day by Plantations Minister and co-cabinet spokesman Dr. Ramesh Pathirana who claimed that “according to reports, vaccinating children against Covid-19 was more beneficial than its harmful aspects.”  He said WHO has recommended its use after considering the benefits it has on children when compared to a small number of children reported with myocarditis after vaccination.

Pathirana, however, did not comment on Dr. Fernandopulle’s grave assertion that the Health Ministry’s Technical Committee, the supreme arbiter, without whose all-important official stamp of approval no vaccination roll out can take place, had not arrived at any decision so far concerning vaccinating children.

The same day, the Deputy Director of the Health Services Dr. Hemantha Herath held a news conference to settle the ongoing conflict of opinion between the COVID Prevention Minister and the Plantation Minister cum cabinet spokesman. He said, “Though the vaccination drive for children aged 12 to 19 years who have comorbidities and disabilities is underway, there is no such decision to vaccinate healthy children as yet.”

“The decision was taken considering the greater benefit of the vaccines than the minor effect that may cause to the children aged 12-19 who have comorbidities and disabilities,” he said. “However, we have to be extra cautious when deciding to give vaccines for healthier children, and that was the reason the experts are yet to put forward their recommendations on this.”

As far as the World Health Organisation’s approval for COVID vaccines is concerned, it must be first borne in mind that only the pressing exigency of the pandemic crisis compelled WHO to approve the vaccines, including Pfizer, for limited emergency use. The adverse effects envisaged are not limited to immediate small side effects but extend to more serious long-term effects, including sterility.

When it comes to vaccinating children above 12, the WHO’s stance is as follows:

n    More evidence is needed on the use of the different COVID-19 vaccines in children to be able to make general recommendations on vaccinating children against COVID-19.

n    WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) has concluded that the Pfizer vaccine is suitable for use by people aged 12 years and above. Children aged between 12 and 15 who are at high risk may be offered this vaccine alongside other priority groups for vaccination.

n    Vaccine trials for children are ongoing and WHO will update its recommendations when the evidence or epidemiological situation warrants a change in policy.

The Health Ministry’s Technical Committee, from which Dr. Ananda Wijeywickrama resigned in silence last month followed by Dr. Asoka Gunaratne since he thought he had nothing fruitful to contribute to it, has remained a shadowy ad hoc body of faceless men and women whose decisions on matters of life and death are taken at face value, trotted out as infallible and paraded as God’s own truth.

Sometimes due to the very nature of its makeup and preferred anonymity, this kind of committee has the potential to be exploited and to base their findings on reasons other than purely scientific. Take for instance, the Health Ministry technical committee appointed last year to decide whether it was safe to let Muslims bury their COVID dead as per their rites.

A sub-committee was appointed to aid the committee on this vexed issue by the Health Minister. But even when the Health Minister’s own expert subcommittee chaired by senior Professor in Microbiology Professor Jennifer Perera submitted its report on December 31 endorsing burial for the COVID dead, the Government remained, like the rock of Gibraltar, committed to its intransigent stance and refused burials.

It preferred, instead, to depend on the Health Minister’s main committee headed by Consultant Judicial Medical Officer and Forensic Pathologist Dr. Channa Perera, which had, in its report submitted two weeks earlier to the Jennifer Report, maintained that cremation was the only safe mode.

Incidentally, in April last year, Dr. Channa Perera was quoted on BBC News Hour, that the “Government has nothing against Muslims but they have a small fear about whether the virus can be used for unauthorised activities. Maybe an unwanted person could get access to a body and it could be used as a biological weapon.”

On January 7, the then Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi told Parliament the Government will continue with mandatory cremations, according to Dr. Channa Perera’s main committee report and the decision to cremate will not be withdrawn on religious, political or any other grounds.

On February 9, COVID Prevention Minister Sudharshani Fernandopulle told Parliament, ‘’The COVID virus was not transmitted through water. The day after, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa told Parliament, “we will allow the bodies to be buried.” Finally, on February 25, the technical committee announced that the bodies of COVID-19 deceased from the Muslim community can be buried.

So what had caused this sudden change of heart? The Sunday Punch of February 28 asked: “Was it Pakistani Prime Minister’s exhortation to the Government to allow COVID burials coupled with the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation raising the issue of mandatory cremation of COVID victims in Lanka as a denial of Muslim rights to be buried when dead at the 46th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council that did the trick?”

At least at that time the issue before the technical committee was one of burying the COVID dead. Today, it’s one of life. Children’s lives. three million precious children’s lives.

Understandably, the Government, together with Governments the world over, is keen to see children returning to their schools and continuing with their COVID interrupted education. But before all else, it is paramount that life exists.

Upon this shadowy technical body of faceless men and women lies a great responsibility. Anonymous though they may be to the public, they cannot be anonymous to their own hearts, and remain immune to any remorse they may come to harbour therein. Resisting all pressure, they must approach their task of deciding whether it is perfectly safe to vaccinate children against COVID, on purely scientific grounds and no other.

Upon their weighty decision, lies the fate of the nation’s seed and blossom. Upon their considered judgement hinges whether Lanka’s three million children will be led like innocent lambs to an unknown slaughter or be granted science’s blessed talisman of protection, and be rendered healthy, virile and fertile to spawn the nation’s next generation.

As these members in the technical committee, and the politicians in Government, play God with children’s lives, they must tread warily, and act very, very responsibly.


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