Seeking to Reopen Primary Schools, Hun Sen Orders Vaccination of 6 to 11 Year Olds

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Two women fill out Covid-19 vaccine forms at the entrance to the vaccine station at Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey primary school on May 11, 2021. (Danielle Keeton-Olsen/VOD)
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Children aged 6 to 11 will be vaccinated in the next phase of Cambodia’s inoculation drive in order to reopen primary schools in the country, Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Wednesday.

The Education Ministry released guidelines late August allowing for the reopening of secondary schools, with multiple provinces and Phnom Penh resuming in-person learning.

The prime minister’s latest diktat on children’s vaccinations, released on his Facebook page as an audio message, says the decision was based on “studies in many countries.”

“So with vaccines it is not a difficult issue. On the one hand, the vaccines can be injected, and on the other hand, we already have the vaccines,” he said in the audio message.

The vaccination drive will start on September 17 and include 1.8 million children, Hun Sen said. Cambodia is already vaccinating children aged 12 to 17 and, according to Health Ministry data, 87 percent of children in this age bracket have been vaccinated as of Tuesday.

The high vaccination rate among teenagers led the government to reopen private and public secondary schools, grade 7 to 12, after 20 months of on-and-off classroom lessons.

While countries have started vaccinating children aged 12 to 17, Cambodia joins a handful of nations looking to vaccinate younger children. According to the BBC, China and Chile have approved the use of the Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine for young children, with the vaccine being administered to children as young as 3 in China.

The government’s vaccination drive has been bolstered by access to Chinese-made Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, which have been either purchased or donated. Cambodia has also received doses of the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization only recommend children aged 12 and above get the Pfizer vaccine, which is the only Covid-19 vaccine so far approved by the WHO for adolescents 17 and younger.

Both health bodies recommend masking, social distancing and hygiene measures for students returning to school.

Li Ailan, who heads the WHO in Cambodia, said that children with underlying conditions were at increased risk of severe illness from Covid-19, but, in general, children were far less likely to get seriously ill. She said the WHO did not have any recommendations on vaccinations as a requirement to reopen schools.

“WHO does not recommend that vaccinations be used as a prerequisite for reopening schools safely and gradually. It is vital to continue to implement public health and social measures,” she said in an email.

Ministry of Health secretary of state Or Vandine did not respond to requests for comment.

Michael Thigpen of the U.S. CDC said no Covid-19 vaccines had yet to be approved for children under 12 in the U.S. “Studies are ongoing in the United States to determine whether COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective in younger age groups,” he said. The U.S. Embassy referred questions about Cambodia’s national vaccination plan to Cambodian health authorities.

Additional reporting by Ananth Baliga

Updated at 11:38 a.m. on September 16 to include comments from the WHO.

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