ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece, Italy and a handful of other European Union nations began vaccinating children ages 5-11 against COVID-19 on Wednesday as EU governments braced for the omicron variant to spread quickly during the travel and large gatherings of the holiday season.
Acrobats dressed as superheroes rappelled down the walls of a hospital in Milan, Italy, as the city prepared to join the new vaccine rollout. Wearing capes and bodysuits, they stopped to greet patients through the windows at a pandemic ward and other children in a pediatric wing.
Youngsters getting their first shot in Greece were given stickers and the day off from school.
Greece administered its first shots to younger children hours after authorities announced the country’s highest daily death toll of the pandemic: 130 people. Among the first to respond was Greek Education Minister Niki Kerameus.
“I won’t hide the fact that on a personal level, after having talked with doctors and receiving scientific data, our family decided to vaccinate our son, who is 5 1/2 years old,” Kerameus said before taking her son, Loukas, to get his shot at an Athens hospital.
Dr. Franco Locatelli, the head of Italy’s Superior Health Council, guided the country through its first devastating wave of the pandemic. He urged Italian families to take part in the child vaccine program, hoping to boost the country’s already high vaccination rate amid a new spike in infections.
“Consider this an appeal to all families,” Locatelli said. “Take advantage of this opportunity. Talk to your pediatrician. Vaccinate your children. Do it for them. Show them how much you love your children by giving them the maximum protection possible.”
Elisabetta Valente, who works as a doctor in Rome, brought her 5 and 9 year old to museum hosting a vaccination center for children.
“I am a pediatrician, and I work in intensive care units,” Valente said. “When you see what happens to those who choose not to get the vaccine, it makes you think, ‘What if they had made a different choice?’”
Spain and Hungary also expanded their vaccination programs to younger children. EU regulators last month approved a reduced-dose vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech for use in the 5-11 age group.
A two-month surge in infections across Europe eased slightly in early December, but the appearance of the omicron variant has created uncertainty. According to an analysis Tuesday of data from South Africa, where omicron is driving a surge in infections, the variant seems to be more easily spread from person to person and better at evading vaccines, but also milder.
A top EU official said Wednesday that the bloc expects omicron to dominate infections in the EU by mid-January. The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control suggested that governments consider travel-related restrictions and press ahead with vaccination campaigns and booster shots.
Vaccines for children are voluntary in all EU countries and require parental approval.
Authorities in Spain have set an ambitious target for vaccinating younger children before the customary family gatherings at Christmas. Nearly 90% of the country’s residents 12 and older have received two vaccine doses.
“I’m encouraged to see so many parents with their children here,” Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias said, visiting a school in a central Spanish town of Toledo where shots were being given on Wednesday. A 40-second video ad by the Spanish Health Ministry featured child actors saying: “It’s our turn. Our vaccines are finally here! Grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, uncles and aunts and our teacher have already been vaccinated.”
Poland, Portugal, Croatia and Slovenia plan to lower their vaccine eligibility age later this week.
Several hundred people protested Wednesday in front of the government headquarters in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. The protesters chanted “Don’t kill our kids!” and “We won’t give you our children!”
The World Health Organization says more evidence is needed on COVID-19 vaccines in children for it to make general recommendations about their use in kids. It also says vaccines generally should be reserved for those who are the most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 disease, which includes the elderly, people with weaker immune systems, and health care workers.
Some EU nations are taking a more cautious approach to vaccinating younger children. Germany has started a region-based rollout, the Netherlands is waiting until after the holidays and France is prioritizing children who suffer from heart and respiratory problems, obesity, and diabetes.
Britain was slower than many European countries to start vaccinating children ages 12-15, and it has not yet approved vaccines for younger children. Wei Shen Lim, a member of the U.K.’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, said the group expected to make a decision before Christmas but was awaiting a recommendation from British regulators.
Conservative lawmaker Jeremy Hunt, a former health minister, criticized the delay on approving vaccines for younger children.
“Our regulators, having been the nimblest in the world, are now taking too long,” he said.
Winfield reported from Rome. AP journalists from around Europe contributed to this report.
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