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Why are young people receiving extra encouragement to get vaccinated?

With the UK government offering vaccines to all citizens aged 16 and over, all adults are now able to get vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus. These vaccines prevent the development of serious symptoms of the virus and lower the risk of infection. Health Secretary Sajid Javid has repeatedly advocated for the success of the vaccine, reporting that the vaccination program has prevented more than 24 million infections in England alone and that receiving the jab is the “best way to protect people from serious illness.” So why, considering the desperation of the British public to ‘return to normality’, have around 11.1% of those eligible chosen to remain unvaccinated?

Full-immunisation to Covid-19 seems to be the only way for Britain to return to normal

Since vaccinations were made available to the UK population, the majority of people have elected to receive them. Many are aware of the fact that full-immunisation to Covid-19 seems to be the only way for Britain to return to normal life following the disruption caused by the virus. However, as the opportunity to be jabbed has been extended to all citizens 16 and over, patterns have been found among those who are reluctant to receive the vaccine.

Vaccination among young people has become a key focus. As of July 2021, fewer than 60% of 18-to-25-year-olds had received their first jab in England compared to 95% of people aged over 80. It appears that the younger people are, the more unlikely they are to be double-jabbed. Professor of Paediatric Infection and Immunity, Beate Kampmann, suggests that this is because people are more hesitant to be vaccinated “if they feel the disease to be prevented does not concern them.”

At the start of the pandemic, experts stressed that those who were elderly and vulnerable were more likely to be hospitalised due to the virus. Nearly two years after the coronavirus pandemic began, this hasn’t changed. The majority of deaths due to Covid-19, in the week ending 27 August, was among those aged 75 to 84, and hospital admissions due to infection were highest in people aged 85 and older.

Continuing the pattern seen throughout the pandemic, young people aren’t as likely to be hospitalised as their elders, despite having the highest infection rate. This could explain why some young people aren’t seeking vaccinations, as they are less likely to become seriously ill or die after catching Covid-19.

However, it’s a common misconception that young people aren’t at risk of Covid-19. The latest figures show that those under 34 years old now make up more than a fifth of those admitted to hospital with the virus. This is four times higher than during last winter’s peak. Most of those young people hospitalised are unvaccinated.

Professor John Drury from the University of Sussex says this is in part down to messages about “freedoms” that have been promoted by the UK government, which he claims has been “disastrous for public engagement with protective behaviours.” Young people have been led to believe that vaccinations and masks are largely unnecessary now, and that the risks have been minimised due to social distancing measures being lifted. However, they remain one of the groups most at risk right now.

Many young people are dealing with long-term effects of the virus, such as joint pain and chronic fatigue

Illustrator Ella Harwood (23) reported being “fit and healthy”, exercising often, with “literally no [health] conditions” prior to contracting the virus. She battled Covid-19 for seven months during 2021, coming close to death, and now fears she’ll be dealing with side effects for the rest of her life. Similarly, Quincy Dwamena (31) stated he was a healthy guy who regularly went to the gym, but was infected with the virus after delaying his jab and was hospitalised after becoming seriously ill. Both have since become advocates for vaccination, pushing for young people to get jabbed after realising how seriously Covid-19 can affect them.

Additionally, many young people are dealing with long-term effects of the virus, such as joint pain and chronic fatigue. Kampmann stresses the importance of “[putting] out the data specifically [on] how young people’s health is affected by the pandemic”, as most people under 35 won’t consider themselves at risk unless they have already been labelled as ‘vulnerable.’

Regardless of the effects that Covid-19 has on young people, vaccination is necessary to cut down transmission chains in the UK. As infection rates are highest among those aged 11 to 25, the spread of the virus will continue until vaccination among young people increases.

Researchers have found that full immunisation with either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine reduces onward transmission by 40-60%. This means that individuals are significantly less likely to pass their infection on to others – helping to break chains of transmission, limiting the spread of the virus, and creating greater herd immunity. If this doesn’t happen, those who are unable to get vaccinated – due to health conditions or other vulnerabilities – will continue to suffer the effects of the pandemic.

The government has attempted to create incentives for young people to get vaccinated

The government has attempted to create incentives for young people to get vaccinated. ‘Vaccine passports’, for example, were proposed – meaning crowded sites would have required individuals to show Covid-19 vaccination proof before entering. The government planned to introduce a scheme this month that required full immunisation before people could attend night clubs. This was due to the fact that in “large gatherings of people, especially indoors, the virus tends to spike and spread”, according to former vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi. However, this policy has since been put on hold. 

‘Vaccine passports’ were strongly opposed by The Night Time Industries Association, who said that requiring documentation for club entry would “cripple the industry.” However, nightclubs are a focal point in controlling the spread of the virus. As they’re largely populated by young people who have a seven-day infection rate of 1 in 100 people, gatherings are likely to be hotbeds for the virus to transmit – especially if those attending are unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, Professor Drury – who is a part of the subcommittee advising on behavioural science – has highlighted that, while these incentives will work for some people, those who are reluctant to be vaccinated are unlikely to be swayed by them. He said these measures “will backfire with those who are most hesitant and suspicious, who will perceive it as coercion” – a statement supported by the outcry towards the introduction of ‘vaccine passports’ across the UK. Drury has stressed that educating people on the risks of Covid-19 is more important than the incentives.

Furthermore, vaccinations are important when looking to the future of ‘living with Covid-19’, as many experts believe the SARS-CoV-2 virus (which causes Covid-19) will eventually become ‘endemic.’ This means that there will be seasonal waves of the virus, much like influenza or common colds – making building herd immunity through vaccination even more important.

There are likely to be “recurrent outbreaks”, according to Ottar Bjornstad, Professor of Entomology and Biology at Penn State University, and “prior exposure may prime the immune system to provide some protection against severe disease.” It is likely that Covid-19 will become endemic, as this has happened with previous respiratory viruses that have caused pandemics. One notable example is the A/H1N1 virus, responsible for the devastating ‘Spanish Flu’ in 1918 which recirculated in 2009 under the name ‘Swine Flu.’

Regardless of how experts elect to encourage young people to get vaccinated, (whether it be through education, incentive, or a combination of both), it is absolutely necessary that they do so. This is not only vital for individual health – as the virus can severely affect young, healthy people just as it does other groups – but also for the public health of Great Britain as a whole. 

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