Scientists are facing fresh calls to approve Covid vaccines for young children after hospital admissions among under-sixes jumped to a record high.
Hundreds more admissions of kids aged five and under were recorded in England in the latest week compared to the previous, analysis of official figures reveals.
The figures have prompted the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) to call on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to reevaluate its position on jabs for young children, amid uncertainties about the Omicron variant and its risk to youngsters.
The society was responding to analysis by NationalWorld showing children aged under six are now four times more likely than school-aged children to be admitted to hospital with Covid, as a proportion of the population.
Data from the UK Covid dashboard shows 569 children aged 0 to five were admitted to hospital with Covid in England in the seven days to 3 January.
That was an increase of 73% compared to the week to 27 December when there were 328 admissions, much higher than the average increase across all age groups of 58%.
In the week to 3 January, there were 14.5 admissions for every 100,000 under sixes in England, a rate four times higher than for children aged six to 17, for whom there were 3.5 admissions. That is a record high to date in the pandemic. Last January the rate peaked at 4.4 admissions among 0 to five year olds.
The average across all age groups in England is 25.2 admissions, while for those aged 85 and over it is at 175.8.
No data is available for Scotland beyond 18 December, while in Northern Ireland admissions are only broken down to a broad category covering all 0 to 19 year olds.
The Welsh Government meanwhile told NationalWorld it did not hold hospital admissions data by age group.
All children aged 12 and over are eligible for vaccines. Jabs have also recently been approved for vulnerable youngsters aged five to 11.
Dr Jyotsna Vohra, RSPH director of policy and public affairs, said: “While uncertainties remain about the Omicron variant, and the risk it poses to young children, the rise in hospital admissions in children under 11 years presents a growing concern.
"The JCVI has previously advised against vaccinating children under 12, however in light of rising hospitalisations and [the fact that] that the use of Covid-19 vaccines in young children has been approved in other countries, RSPH urge the JCVI to evaluate the growing evidence base and its implications on current guidance."
Covid hospital data counts all those admitted after testing positive in the previous 14 days, and those who tested positive once they were admitted.
It includes patients being treated primarily for other conditions as well as those who are in hospital because of sickness caused by Covid.
Most Covid patients are in hospital primarily because of the virus, separate NHS England data shows – but those figures are not broken down by age.
In the latest technical briefing on the Omicron variant, the UK Health Security Agency noted preliminary analysis estimates children aged five to 17 faced a much lower risk of hospitalisation than with Delta.
Speaking of lower risks posed by Omicron to the population at large, it added: “It is important to highlight that these lower risks do not necessarily imply reduced hospital burden over the current epidemic wave, given the higher growth rate and immune evasion observed with Omicron.”
No mention was made of children aged under five.
NationalWorld analysis of Covid cases among children of a similar age does not show a clear correlation between the number of positive cases and the rise in admissions.
Covid case data in England is broken down by children aged 0 to four and five to nine, so comparisons with hospitalisation age groups are imperfect.
There is usually a lag of at least a week between a person testing positive for Covid and then requiring hospitalisation, while the virus takes hold.
Hospital admissions among under sixes began a sustained and rapid period of increase from 24 December.
But cases among children aged five to nine had been on a general downward trend since 5 December, following a spike in November. Among children aged 0 to four cases had been increasing, but at a much steadier pace than the recent rise in hospitalisations.
Case data includes positive results from PCRs and lateral flow tests, unless a positive lateral flow was then followed by a negative confirmatory PCR result within 24 hours.
Current government guidance states children under five – unlike older children – do not need to take part in rapid daily testing if they are a close contact of someone with Covid. They are still advised to take PCRs if a positive case is in their household or if they have symptoms.
The UK Health Security Agency was approached for comment. It said the JCVI “keeps the evidence under review”.
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