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Plan to inoculate teens in Japan prompts deluge of angry calls and emails

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As municipalities prepare to inoculate adolescents against COVID-19, some have been inundated with calls and emails from irate people opposed to the young people getting the shots.

Officials say many of those opposed to the move seem averse to the coronavirus vaccine, and are particularly sensitive about the prospect of teenagers being vaccinated. The high volume of calls and emails as part of the anti-vaccination campaign have almost crippled service lines, and in some cases have included death threats, prompting some municipalities to dial back their commitment to getting youngsters in full-time education vaccinated.

Pediatricians have recommended COVID-19 shots for teens, although they say they need to be conducted with caution.

According to municipalities, it wasn’t until they announced their plans to vaccinate schoolchildren — following the central government’s decision last month to approve Pfizer Inc. shots for those as young as 12 — that they became the target of a flurry of calls from across the nation.

One such municipality is the city of Komaki, in Aichi Prefecture. Earlier this month, the city said it was considering prioritizing middle and high school students for vaccinations so they could get the shots during their upcoming summer vacations, which typically start in late July. The idea was to help restore normalcy as soon as possible so that schools could go ahead with a series of “once-in-a-lifetime” school trips and other events, many of which have been downsized or canceled due to the pandemic, said a Komaki city official who asked not to be named.

But soon after, the city faced a barrage of phone calls and emails urging it to rethink the decision.

“Many of them were voicing concerns about long-term side-effects the vaccine could have on children. Others also said children shouldn’t be used as guinea pigs and that their future shouldn’t be ruined,” the official said. The city took about 100 such calls and emails, which at one point hampered its ability to accommodate other vaccine-related inquiries and reservation requests, he said.

The town of Ine, Kyoto Prefecture, was also reportedly inundated with calls and emails slamming its policy of administering jabs to children age 12 and above. Some callers threatened to kill the officials who answered. An Ine official, when contacted by The Japan Times, declined to comment.

The city of Soja, Okayama Prefecture faced a similar anti-vaccine campaign. Mayor Soichi Kataoka announced earlier this month that the city was inoculating children age 12 through 15 at school. In a tweet, the mayor made clear that the plan was not mandatory, and that the “right not to be vaccinated,” as he put it, would be respected, while also vowing to prevent discrimination and abuse against pupils who don’t get vaccinated.

A 13-year-old student receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination event for teenagers at a public school in Betim, Brazil, on Wednesday. | REUTERS
A 13-year-old student receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccination event for teenagers at a public school in Betim, Brazil, on Wednesday. | REUTERS

But an outpouring of criticism ensued nonetheless, with about 100 phone calls and 2,000 emails flooding in just within a day, according to a city official who declined to be named.

The complaints, the official said, argued that using schools as vaccination sites would heighten the risk of discrimination and bullying against children who don’t get vaccinated.

But the official also noted that few of the calls came from parents in the city genuinely concerned about their own children being vaccinated, while more were from citizens across the nation who appeared to be fundamentally against vaccines. Those who contacted the city, he said, occasionally broke into a diatribe against what they perceived to be the safety risks of vaccination.

“They were essentially questioning the safety of vaccines. They also said that unlike older people, those kids have a future ahead of them,” the official said.

The onslaught eventually caused the city to retract its original plan to inoculate students en masse on school premises, and essentially go back to the drawing board with its plans to vaccinate teens.

In a statement released Wednesday, the Japan Pediatric Society (JPS) said that it is beneficial to administer jabs to children age 12 and above, while cautioning that such programs should be “conducted carefully.”

“Vaccinations for children should be conducted carefully, based on the preceding inoculation of adults,” it said.

It is imperative, however, that children themselves and their parents be sufficiently informed of the pros and cons of getting vaccinated in advance, and be given access to meticulous care from medical professionals throughout the process, the group stressed, adding that for this reason, “it is more desirable that they are vaccinated individually.”

While COVID-19 symptoms among children tend to be mild, precedent overseas suggests that children are more susceptible to side-effects from the shots, such as fever and pain at the injection site, the group said.

“It is therefore important to make sure they are given sufficient explanations in advance,” the statement said.

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