Fact check: Claims about WHO guidance for vaccinating children are missing context

The claim: The World Health Organization says children should not receive COVID-19 vaccines

Some social media users are sharing purported guidance from the World Health Organization that children should not be vaccinated against the coronavirus. 

The WHO, founded in 1948 as an agency of the United Nations, advises countries on how to respond to global health emergencies. The agency has become a target of misinformation amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

“The WHO Says Children Should Not Receive COVID-19 Vaccines,” reads a June 23 Instagram post with more than 1,400 likes. 

On June 22, a Facebook user shared a similar version of the claim, linking to a WHO page that purportedly said, “Children should not be vaccinated for the moment.” 

USA TODAY reached out to the Instagram and Facebook users for comment. 

Among those who shared the claim was Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who tweeted, “The WHO says ‘children should not be vaccinated.'”

But there is more to the WHO’s vaccination guidance than the social media posts suggest. The WHO guidance was less about safety than about availability of the vaccine around the world.

The organization’s site has been updated to reflect new information about the Pfizer vaccine for children age 12 and older. 

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WHO advice updated

A June 22 archive of the WHO’s site shows the page did at one point say, “Children should not be vaccinated for the moment.”

The previous guidance said there was not yet enough evidence on the use of coronavirus vaccine in children to make a general recommendation. 

But the page was updated on June 22 to include a June 15 advisory from the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts that concluded the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is safe for anyone age 12 or older. 

WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic told USA TODAY that children ages 12-15 who are at high risk may be offered this vaccine alongside other priority groups. 

“Children and adolescents tend to have milder disease compared to adults, so unless they are part of a group at higher risk of severe COVID-19, it is less urgent to vaccinate them than older people, those with chronic health conditions and health workers,” Jasarevic said via email. 

The WHO has previously explained that vaccine supply is scarce in certain countries, which is why the agency makes this recommendation.

“Except for very few children who are at a high risk, it is not considered to be a priority right now because we have limited doses of vaccines,” WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said on June 11.  “We need to use them to protect the most vulnerable.” 

The WHO’s website still notes more evidence is needed on the use of  COVID-19 vaccines in children before making general recommendations.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend the coronavirus vaccine for anyone 12 years of age and older. On May 10, the Pfizer vaccine received emergency use authorization in the U.S. for children 12 and above. 

Dr. Amy Edwards, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Rainbow Babys and Children’s Hospital, emphasized that the WHO gives recommendations that are “broadly relevant to the entire world,” while the CDC’s guidance relates specifically to the U.S., where vaccine supply is not limited.

“They both ultimately say the same thing, kids are safe to be vaccinated with Pfizer between the age of 12 and 18, but they place their emphasis slightly differently because of the population they are addressing,” Edwards told USA TODAY via email. 

Jasarevic said vaccine trials for children are ongoing, and the WHO will update its recommendations “when the evidence or epidemiological situation warrants a change in policy.”

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Our rating: Missing context

The claim that the WHO says children should not be vaccinated against COVID-19 is MISSING CONTEXT, based on our research, because without additional details it could be misleading. The information shared in the social media posts is outdated, and the WHO has updated its site to add that the Pfizer vaccine is safe for people age 12 and older. It is also worth noting that advice from the WHO also applies to countries where vaccine supply is limited. The CDC, meanwhile, currently recommends everyone 12 and older get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Our fact-check sources: 

  • World Health Organization, June 22, COVID-19 advice for the public: Getting vaccinated
  • Wayback Machine, June 22, World Health Organization COVID-19 advice for the public: Getting vaccinated
  • World Health Organization, June 15, Updated recommendations for use of Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Janssen vaccines against COVID-19
  • World Health Organization, June 11, Episode #42- Vaccines and children
  • Centers for Disease Control and prevention, May 27, Children & Teens
  • American Academy of Pediatrics, June 23, tweet
  • Food and Drug Administration, May 10, Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine for Emergency Use in Adolescents in Another Important Action in Fight Against Pandemic
  • First Draft, June 23, Misleading information about vaccinating children is linked to old WHO advice
  • Tarik Jasarevic, June 25, email exchange with USA TODAY
  • Dr. Amy Edwards, June 25, email exchange with USA TODAY

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