08 January 2022

Almost two years into this pandemic, we are just days away from the next stage with children aged 5-11 eligible to access a COVID-19 vaccination. For many parents the decision to vaccinate your child will be straightforward. In Canberra we have always enjoyed nationally leading rates of childhood vaccination demonstrating strong parental support for universal vaccination programs.  

For some parents, though, the decision might not be so straightforward and for those who want to know more about the vaccine program there is a lot of public information available from the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and from Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) who have advised on the vaccination program across all age groups and have specifically assessed the benefits of a vaccination program for younger children. GPs and pharmacists are also excellent sources of information about the vaccine program.

Reflecting on my own experience as a parent caring for an unvaccinated COVID-19 positive child last year, one of the worst parts of the whole ordeal for me was that she had contracted the virus without having the benefit of any vaccine protection to help her young immune system battle COVID-19.

At the time she contracted the virus back in August last year, she wasn’t eligible for the vaccine. Although it had been approved for use in her age cohort, the rollout hadn’t begun.

For my child, the COVID virus was serious. She was in bed sick with symptoms for two weeks but her recovery from COVID has taken much longer. Her acute stage symptoms included extremely high temperatures, headaches, nausea, sore throat, loss of smell, cough, feeling of breathlessness and extreme fatigue. A secondary chest infection at the tail end of the virus requiring antibiotics was an additional kick to her recovery. Her loss of smell and a terrible debilitating fatigue that crept up on her most afternoons and prevented her from participating fully in school were the longer lasting symptoms.  It is only now, almost five months post her initial infection, that she is really back to her old self (although her smell is still not 100% back to normal). 

In addition to the physical symptoms, COVID also took a mental toll for my daughter. Just having the virus was very scary for her. At the same time as she battled the physical symptoms, she was worried and stressed about spreading it to the rest of the family. She was isolated in her room for two weeks at a time when what she needed the most was constant reassurance and comfort. She still doesn’t like to recall that time and the emergence of the Omicron variant has bought all these worries back to the surface. 

Having cared for her whilst she was sick and then witnessed her deal with the virus aftermath has only reinforced my view that we let her down by leaving her completely unprotected from COVID.  The slow vaccine rollout and lack of supply all played their part in leaving so many like her unprotected and millions locked down for months.

I know every parent will make their own decisions on what is right for their children and I can only speak from my own experience but from what I saw in my home, this virus is not like any other illness. To some it is mild, to others it is more serious and for some its impact is devastating. No one can predict how the virus will affect you or your child. 

Vaccination offers some vital protection from the viral roll of the dice. For my daughter, who couldn’t be vaccinated until her COVID symptoms had cleared up, the day she got her first shot just before Christmas was a day to celebrate.

Senator Katy Gallagher

This opinion piece was first published in the Canberra Times on Saturday 8 January, 2022.