‘Vaccinate staff on priority basis before opening up schools’

IIPH-Hyderabad director suggests allowing younger children into schools first

While the Telangana government seems to be in a hurry to open up schools and colleges post lockdown, public health experts are suggesting a different timeline, calling for priority vaccination for teachers, administrators, housekeeping staff, bus drivers and others, as quickly as possible.

“Immunisation has been started for children above 12 years of age in some countries. If the school staff are quickly immunised by the time the Dasara holidays end, schools can reopen. This could also be done in a graded manner,” suggests Indian Institute of Public Health (IIPH)-Hyderabad director G.V.S. Murthy, in an exclusive interaction.

However, contrary to what the official thinking is, Dr. Murthy wants the younger children to be allowed first into schools with vaccinated personnel. “We can start with younger children below 10 years starting off earlier and then those in the 10-16 year age group followed by the secondary schools over a three-week window,” he moots.

For worried parents, this is what the good doctor has to say: “Educational institutions have one of the lowest risks of transmission and the mortality rate in children is extremely low. And, children are more likely to pick up the infection at home rather than at school, except in residential schools.”

Educational institutions are not only about teaching-learning but also about social interaction, play and in many places, nutritional supplements but for that, “the earlier the school personnel are vaccinated, the sooner the educational institutional opening up can start. This applies to the Anganwadi workers and nursery school teachers too,” insists the public health expert who has experience of working with World Health Organisation (WHO), Geneva, and was UNAIDS consultant with National Aids Control Organisation.

With regard to fears about a possible third wave of the pandemic, the IIPH director said this could occur whenever there is an increase in the number of people who are at risk of getting infected, either because they did not suffer from COVID in the past or were not vaccinated.

With vaccine availability seemingly easing, Dr. Murthy advocates the child immunisation model. “Hospital-based vaccination is on a first-come, first-served basis. However, we will never know who all have been covered and who are left to be vaccinated. In childhood immunisation, health centre staff have a list of eligible babies needing to be vaccinated and they motivate mothers to bring them to the vaccination centre offered at the nearest location to the house. Similar mobilisation is needed for effective COVID vaccination,” he says.

Micro-planning and community mobilisation can be done like age cut-off criteria to be decided by the government with the help of the community leaders and local health staff. Close-by public vaccination sites can be identified with local community taking responsibility of bringing people and maintaining discipline at the sites, added Dr. Murthy.

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