Pregnant women "can and should" be vaccinated against COVID-19, the Union Health Ministry said Friday evening, signalling a policy change that follows growing concern over exposure of expectant mothers (and their children) to the deadly virus, and their right to be vaccinated.
Until as recently as last month lactating women were eligible for the vaccine but pregnant women were not; the government had said this was due to a lack of safety and efficacy data since clinical trials for vaccines do not typically include pregnant women as participants.
"The Health Ministry has given guidelines that the vaccine can be given to pregnant women. Vaccination is useful for them and should be given," Dr Balram Bhargava, Director-General of the Indian Council for Medical Research, was quoted as saying by news agency ANI.
Vaccination for pregnant women was one of the topics discussed by the NTAGI, or National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, in May.
"Considering current situation of pandemic, NTAGI-STSC recommends pregnant women should not be excluded from vaccination because exposure probability is very high and therefore the benefit far outweighs the risk," the committee said in the minutes of its May 28 meeting.
Doubts were raised about possible risks to the mother and/or child - including that of clotting (or thrombosis) with the Covishield jab, but the committee decided "benefit far outweighs the risk".
"... before vaccination, pregnant women should be fully informed that long-term adverse reactions and safety of vaccine for fetus and child (has) not yet (been) established," it added.
Making vaccines available for pregnant women was an issue flagged by Shiv Sena MP Priyanka Chaturvedi, who said last month on NDTV: "Why should any woman be kept out of the ambit of vaccination because of a biological process?"
#FYI | “Why should any woman be kept out of the ambit of vaccination because of a biological process? If a woman chooses to get a vaccine, how can the state stop her from going for it?”: Priyanka Chaturvedi (@priyankac19), Rajya Sabha MP, on vaccinations for pregnant women pic.twitter.com/7IvgtVjAuw— NDTV (@ndtv) May 27, 2021
However, vaccinating children (those below 18) is "still debatable until relevant data is available", Dr Bhargava said today, in response to calls to vaccinate kids ahead of a possible third wave of infections.
"There is only one country giving vaccines to children at the moment. Whether very small children will ever need vaccines is still a question. Till such time as we have more data... we will not be in a position to vaccinate children at large," he said.
"We have started a study on children (two to 18 years old) and will have results by September."
However, vaccination for children - which some have called for because of fears the third Covid wave will target children (those below 18 years of age) - is not allowed for now.
The government has not permitted this, citing lack of WHO policy on this subject.
Bharat Biotech, makers of the Covaxin vaccine, are conducting a trial on 525 children between two and 18, with results expected in two-three months, AIIMS chief Dr Randeep Guleria told NDTV.
Last week sources in the Serum Institute told NDTV the company is also planning a vaccine trial for children; this will be the Covovax vaccine, manufacturing of which began Friday.
The government has played down fears children will be affected in any future Covid waves, but has also ordered that next month's sero survey will include 14,000 kids over the age of six.
The second wave hit India hard, with lakhs infected and thousands dead daily.
At its peak over four lakh new cases were reported in a 24-hour period, and analysis of mortality data from certain states suggests Covid-related fatalities in this period were grossly undercounted.
Ahead of a third wave - which experts say is more than likely, particularly given the mutation of the virus - the government has been urged to increase the pace of vaccination and widen the vaccine net.
With input from ANI