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Don’t assume your child wants a COVID-19 vaccine, parents and public health experts warn

Regina registered nurse Heather Flynn said she was so excited to book her 17-year-old son a vaccine appointment as soon as he became eligible last week that she overlooked one key thing: She never talked to him about it first.

“I didn’t have a discussion with him. I just told him, ‘I booked your vaccine, you’re going to get it,'” she said. “Probably not the best idea on my part, because he felt cornered.”

Flynn just assumed the teen would be eager to get the COVID-19 vaccine — like his older brother and parents — but soon discovered that he was vaccine hesitant. Her son didn’t want to talk about his concerns with CBC News, but Flynn said he was anxious about information he gathered on social media and from friends.

“And boy, did I just want to grab him and take him to a vaccine clinic and sit on him. But can I do that? No,” she said.

Anyone aged 13 years and older can legally choose or refuse a vaccine without parental involvement in Saskatchewan. The age of consent varies across the country. In Ontario, for example, anyone 12 and older can consent to a vaccine on their own behalf, while in Quebec the age is 14.

kids vaccine
Aidin Trew, 16, left, and his 13-year-old brother, Kayin, lined up for hours with their mother at Regina’s drive-thru vaccination clinic as soon as Saskatchewan’s eligibility age dropped to 12 and older. They said they didn’t have any concerns about getting a COVID-19 shot. (Angela Trew)

Flynn is sharing her experience to encourage other parents and public health experts to start “an open conversation” with kids about whether they have concerns or questions about the COVID-19 vaccine.

Some infectious disease experts say it’s important to recognize that vaccine hesitancy exists — whether it’s felt by a young person or their parents — and that people under 18 should have direct access to reliable, authoritative information so they can decide for themselves whether the vaccine is safe and necessary.

Group answers questions in 20 different languages

The head of clinical microbiology at Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital, Joseph Blondeau, agreed to field questions from kids about side-effects, booster shots and clinical trials during a livestream hosted by CBC Saskatchewan last week.

When Grade 5 student Sarah Campbell asked him this question — “Can we achieve herd immunity without kids under the age of 12 being vaccinated? — Blondeau said that’s not likely and seized the opportunity to encourage all children to be “part of the solution.”

joseph blondeau
Joseph Blondeau, head of clinical microbiology at Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, says children are ‘part of the solution’ if they get the vaccine. Here, he takes vaccine questions from Rylee Beeds and Taron Iron in Canoe Narrows, 400 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon, during a CBC Saskatchewan livestream. (CBC)

Cara Benz Tramer, a director with the Saskatchewan Health Authority’s public health unit, said it’s important to encourage conversations with kids about vaccines, take their questions seriously and investigate the root of any anxiety.

“You’re hearing them out, hearing their question and then being able to ask … Is it about them? Is it a question about their family? Is it a question about trying to get back to the new normal?”

She said parents and teachers do their best to answer questions, but they shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to doctors who are keeping pace with scientific advancements and changing guidelines.

In Alberta, a group of pediatricians has started a virtual vaccine hesitancy clinic for parents and kids so that families can connect with medical experts to answer questions. Nationally, COVID-19 Resources Canada, a grassroots initiative started by scientists in March 2020, provides Zoom vaccine Q&A sessions in 20 different languages to any group that makes a request.

“Over the past several weeks, we have seen a major uptake in requests from schools to provide sessions to their students as they become eligible to receive vaccinations,” said Adrienne Caldwell, program director at COVID-19 Resources Canada.

Dr. Alex Wong, an infectious diseases physician at Regina General Hospital and a father of three children, recently volunteered to answer questions from kids on Twitter and was stunned by the demand from teachers.

dr alex wong
Dr. Alex Wong says he was stunned by the response he received after volunteering on Twitter to answer questions from kids and teens about COVID-19 vaccines. (Twitter/Dr. Alex Wong)

It snowballed to the point where he hosted a virtual forum last week for young people aged 12 to 14 from roughly 80 classrooms.

“It’s important for us to acknowledge that kids are smart and they have a lot of questions,” he said. “We want to treat their knowledge level with respect and talk to them like adults, basically, that have a responsibility to make the best decisions for themselves and their health.”

Help others, regain freedom

Wong said some kids aren’t eager to get the vaccine because they’re aware that people their age don’t generally get as sick as adults who have COVID-19. In that case, he said, he believes the most effective messages encourage them to get the shot to help others and to regain their freedom.

Heather Flynn admits she was frustrated by her son’s reluctance to get the vaccine, particularly because she’s a nurse who has experienced an incredibly difficult year at Pasqua Hospital in Regina. However, she and her husband decided they had to start “an open-ended discussion” with their son.

don bosco vaccine clinic etobicoke
A student gets a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Toronto on May 19. The age of consent to choose or refuse a vaccine without parental involvement varies across Canada. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The couple have spent hours scouring medical journals to investigate the answers to any of his questions, and they also turned to medical professionals for expert advice. Flynn connected her son to a pediatrician.

“Because coming from us, it’s ‘Mom, Mom, Mom’ or ‘Dad’s just meh'” she said, rolling her eyes to mimic how teenagers can brush off their parents.

Flynn said her son has tentatively agreed to get a vaccine, but he’s not quite ready yet.

“So we’re stepping back and giving him a little bit of time [yet] still answering questions,” she said. “We want to teach him that he has to make informed, educated choices for his life.”

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