The WHO didn’t reverse its position on kids and COVID vaccines
A social media post circulating on Facebook and Instagram claims that the World Health Organization recently flipped its policy recommendation about children receiving a covid-19 vaccine.
“The WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION recently reversed its stance on children getting the Covid vaccine. Sorry to all those dumb parents who rushed out to get their 12 year olds vaccinated. Oops you injected your kids with poison and it’s no longer recommended. Personally no one should but at least save the children!,” the post reads.
A photo posted alongside the caption is a screenshot from the World Health Organization’s website, with the words circled in red: “Children should not be vaccinated for the moment.”
The screen grab also shows the following paragraph with the words underlined in red: “There is not yet enough evidence on the use of vaccines against COVID-19 in children to make recommendations for children to be vaccinated against COVID-19.”
The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its news feed. (Read more about PolitiFact’s partnership with Facebook.)
Others have been spreading similar messages on social media about this alleged change in the WHO’s stance on covid vaccines for children, including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.). The topic also dominated vaccine-related Google searches on June 22, according to Google Trends data.
Mining the Webpage
The screen grab posted on Instagram was indeed taken directly from the WHO’s webpage and the text had not been altered. The purpose of that specific webpage is to give the public advice on who should receive a covid vaccine.
The webpage stated, “Children should not be vaccinated for the moment.”
However, this was not new guidance from the WHO. The organization first posted this guidance on April 8, according to our analysis of the webpage through the Wayback Machine, an internet archive service, and First Draft, a nonprofit group that analyzes misinformation on the web.
When we reached out to the WHO on June 22 to ask officials about the webpage’s wording and whether they had reversed their stance, a spokesperson sent the following statement:
“Children and adolescents tend to have milder disease compared to adults, so unless they are part of a group at higher risk of severe COVID-19, it is less urgent to vaccinate them than older people, those with chronic health conditions and health workers.
“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.
“WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) has concluded that the Pfizer/BioNTech 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. Vaccine trials for children are ongoing and WHO will update its recommendations when the evidence or epidemiological situation warrants a change in policy.
“It’s important for children to continue to have the recommended childhood vaccines.”
The WHO updated its webpage June 23, replacing the language “children should not be vaccinated for the moment” with the precise language sent in the statement above.
Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at KFF, said she reached out to a WHO contact who told her this updated language was added to reflect the latest advice from the WHO’s June 15 meeting of the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts, which said the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can be given to those age 12 and older.
The WHO’s Stance
The WHO’s chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, explained in a June 11 video why the WHO was not prioritizing covid vaccines for children.
“So, the reason that today, in June 2021, WHO is saying that vaccinating children is not a priority is because children, though they can get infected with covid-19 and they can transmit the infection to others, they are at much lower risk of getting severe disease compared to older adults,” Swaminathan said. “And that is why, when we started prioritizing people who should get the vaccination when there are limited supplies of vaccines available in the country, we recommend that we start with health care workers and front-line workers who are at very high risk of exposure to the infection. Also elderly, the people who have underlying illnesses that make them at high risk to develop severe disease.”
Dr. Rachel Vreeman, director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital, confirmed that the statements on the WHO’s webpage were focused on whom to prioritize most urgently in getting covid vaccines.
“They are not saying that children should not be vaccinated against COVID or that the vaccines currently approved for use in children 12 years old and above are not safe,” Vreeman wrote in an email. “The WHO is saying that the global priority should be on getting more adults vaccinated, since older adults are at the highest risk of serious complications and death from COVID-19.”
“In the face of massive inequities in who has access to COVID-19 vaccines globally, the WHO advises that those at highest risk — older adults — be prioritized first,” Vreeman wrote.
Recommendations of Covid Vaccines for Children in the U.S.
It’s also important to consider that supplies of the covid vaccines are no longer limited in the U.S., as they are in other parts of the world. So, having to ration the vaccine for only health care workers or those who are older or at higher risk for severe disease does not apply here. Remember, the WHO is a global organization, so its recommendations need to be applicable worldwide.
In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and over receive a covid vaccine. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been authorized for emergency use in the U.S. in children ages 12 to 18 and adults of all ages.
The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends that children 12 and up receive a covid vaccine.
So does Vreeman, who is a pediatrician.
“As a pediatrician in the United States, in a setting where the COVID-19 vaccine is widely available, I whole-heartedly recommend that children 12 years old and up receive the COVID-19 vaccination as soon as possible,” Vreeman wrote in an email. “The data show that the vaccines are safe and effective for this age group, and we want to prevent the risks that COVID-19 does present to children.”
An Instagram post and other posts across social media falsely claimed that the WHO recently reversed its stance on children receiving a covid vaccine because the vaccines were “poison” and would be dangerous for children.
The WHO first posted its guidance for children and covid vaccinations on April 8. That guidance did include the wording, “Children should not be vaccinated for the moment.” But that wording was a reflection of the WHO saying that children should not be prioritized for vaccinations over other groups because in many countries supplies of vaccine are limited and health care workers, front-line workers, the elderly and those with high-risk medical conditions should have first dibs.
There’s no evidence the WHO “reversed” its position on childhood covid vaccination in the way the viral social media posts allege. The WHO updated its guidance on June 23 to reflect a meeting of one of its scientific advisory groups, which said the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could be safely given to children 12 and up. But this came after those misleading posts first appeared.
We rate this claim False.
American Academy for Pediatrics, “AAP, CDC Recommend COVID-19 Vaccine for Ages 12 and Older,” May 12, 2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “COVID-19 Vaccines for Children and Teens,” updated May 27, 2021
Email interview with Dr. Rachel Vreeman, director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, June 22, 2021
Email interview with Jen Kates, director of global health and HIV policy at KFF, June 22, 2021
Email exchange with World Health Organization Media Relations, June 22, 2021
First Draft News, “Misleading Information About Vaccinating Children Is Linked to Old WHO Advice,” June 23, 2021
Google Trends, “World Health Organization COVID Vaccine,” accessed June 23, 2021
Twitter, Marjorie Taylor Greene status, June 22, 2021
Wayback Machine, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Twitter status, June 22, 2021, accessed June 23, 2021
Wayback Machine, World Health Organization — COVID-19 Advice for the Public: Getting Vaccinated, April 8, 2021, accessed June 23, 2021
Wayback Machine, World Health Organization — “COVID-19 Advice for the Public: Getting Vaccinated, June 22, 2021,” accessed June 23, 2021
Wayback Machine, World Health Organization — “COVID-19 Advice for the Public: Getting Vaccinated,” June 23, 2021, accessed June 23, 2021
World Health Organization, “COVID-19 Advice for the Public: Getting Vaccinated,” accessed June 23, 2021
World Health Organization, “Interim Recommendations for Use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine, BNT162b2, Under Emergency Use Listing,” June 15, 2021
World Health Organization, “Science in 5 — Episode #42 — Vaccines and Children,” June 11, 2021
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.
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