Teen vaccines must continue (ACDP case)

SECTION27 applying to intervene in the ACDP case – vaccinations for adolescents must continue so schools can reopen fully and safely!

30 November 2021 — SECTION27 is intervening as amicus curiae (a friend of the court) in the case of African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) v Minister of the National Department of Health, to assist the court in understanding the current context of schools in South Africa and children’s rights to health and basic education. The ACDP together with recently formed organisations Free the Children – Save the Nation, Caring Healthcare Workers Coalition and COVID Care Alliance seek an urgent interdict halting the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17.

SECTION27 seeks permission to place evidence before the court to argue that granting an interdict for vaccination of adolescents will have a negative impact on children’s rights to basic education, health and equality, amongst other rights. This is because COVID-19 has made school closures and rotational timetables necessary, which has led to significant lost learning time. Vaccinations are crucial to help prevent further school closures and rotational learning.

ACDP fails to consider the grave socio-economic context that schools – and learners – are subjected to currently. The use of rotational timetables to ensure social distancing at schools is not a sustainable or effective measure because of the state of overcrowding in the majority of public schools. Zeenat Sujee, an attorney at SECTION27 explains that “Vaccines are safe, passing all the testing measures done for any other medicines. The risks of vaccination are much lower than the risks of Covid-19. The ability of adolescents to get vaccinated will help alleviate the strain on the schooling and healthcare systems, and promote learners’ rights to basic education, health, equality and dignity.”

In our papers, we show that COVID-19 school closures negatively impact learners’ mental health and educational attainment. Even with the reopening of schools, the rotational timetabling systems, where learners ‘take turns’ attending school on different days, have resulted in significant (and potentially sustained) learning losses for South Africa’s learners. The effects of the rotational learning system are disproportionately felt by poorer learners in public schools. More privileged schools have been able to transition to digital learning where poorer learners have not had access to devices, data, or even sufficient printed materials to facilitate learning from home effectively.

The majority of learners have not been given enough support to enable the continuation of learning during this disruptive period, which has – among other factors – led to an unprecedented increase in the rates of learners dropping out of school. Overcrowding in schools, as addressed by Dr Sara Muller in her expert affidavit for SECTION27, makes it virtually impossible for learners to attend school and still maintain acceptable levels of social distancing. This is corroborated by recent research on overcrowding from Equal Education. Without vaccination, rotational timetabling systems are likely to continue for long periods. According to Muller:

“Knowing that learners in attendance are vaccinated, and hence less likely to transmit SARS-CoV-2 to each other, or to teachers, or to act as vectors between their school and their homes, would – at minimum – alleviate some of the anxiety and stress that has plagued schooling communities since the advent of the pandemic.”

Dr Muller, as well as a host of other research cited in SECTION27’s intervention, note that the impact of schools closures and rotational learning due to the pandemic has resulted in significant learning losses, in some case up to 70% of the academic year, that will impact the future life opportunities of the children affected by such learning losses.

Additionally, schools act as crucial socio-economic safety nets for learners.Ever since schools closed because of COVID-19, the provision of meals through the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) – despite the successful court application by SECTION27, Equal Education and the Equal Education Law Centre to reinstate the NSNP to all qualifying learners including those on rotational timetables – has never reached all 9.6 million learners who benefit from the feeding scheme.

SECTION27’s application also contains the expert affidavit of Dr Shaheda Omar of the Teddy Bear Clinic for Abused Children.  Her affidavit provides real-life examples of the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on South African children as evident through the work of the clinic.  The impact has included increased rates of abuse and violence at home. She concludes that “many children will continue to remain at risk for as long as they are unable to return to any semblance of a normal life”, and that – if vaccinated – they “are more likely to be able to participate in their normal routines, with less disruptions to school attendance and other activities.”

COVID-19 has also been associated with an increase in the rate of teenage pregnancies. According to figures released by the MEC for Health in Gauteng, more than 20,000 teenage girls gave birth between April 2020 and March 2021. Of these, a staggering 934 girls were aged under 14 when they delivered. In addition, 2,976 teenage girls terminated their pregnancies during this same period.

The ACDP’s case to stop the rollout of vaccines for adolescents is based on unsound and questionable allegations from discredited doctors, and may lead to sustained and serious violations of children’s rights. In fact, their two supporting affidavits come from doctors from the US and UK who have been widely discredited, and have no expertise in virology, immunology, epidemiology or public health. Affidavits from Dr Nicholas Crisp, Acting Director-General at the National Department of Health (NDOH) and Professor Salim Abdool Karim (CAPRISA), both of whom deposed to affidavits for the Respondents, and Professor Thomas Moultrie (who deposed to an affidavit for SECTION27) eloquently debunk the false statements made by the ACDP and their partners with updated and accurate expert evidence.

In their papers, the ACDP makes claims that there is “no good reason whatsoever to vaccinate children.” They claim that 80% of the South Africans have had COVID-19, suggesting that “we are approaching herd immunity” which according to them, is why infection rates in South Africa are declining. However, the opposite is true. President Cyril Ramaphosa has confirmed that South Africa is entering a fourth wave with a surge of infections notable across the country. 

In his expert affidavit, Professor Moultrie notes that adolescents and young adults are an important vector for the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. He draws attention to a recent World Health Organization statement, which states the following:

“There are benefits of vaccinating children and adolescents that go beyond the direct health benefits. Vaccination that decreases COVID transmission in this age group may reduce transmission from children and adolescents to older adults, and may help reduce the need for mitigation measures in schools. Minimizing disruptions to education for children and maintenance of their overall well-being, health and safety are important considerations.”

The SECTION27 intervention intends to highlight the substantial teaching and learning challenges posed by the current conditions of schooling, and the crucial role schools play in offering socio-economic safety nets for learners – it is therefore imperative that learners are able to get back to daily learning as quickly as possible.  This necessitates continuing the vaccination of adolescents.

Our papers can be accessed at this link.

[ENDS]

For media queries, contact: