May 10, 2021, 8:04:15 PM CDT Jun 11, 2021, 11:33:57 AM CDT

COVID-19 vaccine and children

An infectious disease expert answers common questions about the COVID-19 vaccine for kids

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On May 10, 2021, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted emergency use authorization to Pfizer-BioNTech for use of the COVID-19 vaccine in ages 12-15. The vaccine was already approved for use in ages 16 and up. This means that children and teens ages 12 and older can now get vaccinated. While this is an exciting step to protect more people from COVID-19, parents may have questions or feel uncertain about getting their child vaccinated.

"I understand parents' potential anxiety," says Jeffrey Kahn, M.D., Director of Infectious Disease at Children's Health℠ and Professor at UT Southwestern. "There is always going to be some hesitancy to a new vaccine given to children. This is what we have found, historically, with a variety of vaccines that are now routinely used in kids, such as the chickenpox vaccine. But now, we rarely see a child with chickenpox."

Dr. Kahn reminds parents that there are many benefits of getting the COVID-19 vaccine. It not only keeps kids safe and healthy, but also will help them return to life as normal. He answers some common questions about the COVID-19 vaccine for kids to help parents feel confident and informed about their decision.

When will younger children be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine?

It is not yet known when younger children under the age of 12 will be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Clinical trials are now determining the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine in children as young as 6 months old. Pending clinical trial results, Pfizer plans to seek approval of the COVID-19 vaccine for younger children by fall 2021.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine for children different than the vaccine for adults?

The Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine that is approved for children ages 12 and older is the same vaccine that is approved for adults. The vaccine is given as a two-shot series, three weeks apart. It's important to get the second shot, as you are not considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after your final dose.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for children?

Clinical trial data shows that the COVID-19 vaccine is both safe and effective in children ages 12 and older. Safety is a top priority for the vaccine, and the FDA's approval is based on these safe results.

"These vaccines are very well-tolerated, and millions of doses have been given safely so far," Dr. Kahn says.

While acknowledging potential concerns, Dr. Kahn hopes parents will review trustworthy information about the safety and importance of getting the COVID-19 vaccine for their kids. Doing this research can help dispel common myths about the vaccine.

Why should I vaccinate my child if their risk from COVID-19 is low?

While the risk of severe COVID-19 in children is lower compared to adults, that risk is not zero. In this situation, Dr. Kahn encourages parents to examine the risks and benefits of having their children vaccinated for COVID-19 versus potentially catching COVID-19 itself.

"The risk of severe disease or complications due to COVID-19 is higher than any potential risks posed by the vaccine – even for kids," he says. "Given this, and the benefits of vaccination, I hope parents will see the importance of vaccinating their children."

What are the benefits of vaccinating children for COVID-19?

The COVID-19 vaccine is very effective at preventing illness from COVID-19. Benefits of vaccinating children against COVID-19 include:

1. Protecting children from illness: While children are at lower risk of severe illness from COVID-19, they are not immune to illness. In addition, the long-term effects of COVID-19 in children are not yet known. In some people, COVID-19 has caused long-lasting symptoms, including fatigue, difficulty breathing, joint pain and even depression and anxiety. COVID-19 has also been linked to cases of a rare, potentially serious condition known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C).

2. Protecting the community: Children can and do get infected with COVID-19, and they can and do spread the virus to others. From a community health standpoint, it's very important to have children vaccinated.

"This is a very contagious virus, and we need a high level of immunity to stop its spread," explains Dr. Kahn. "Children under 18 represent about a quarter of the U.S. population. We are never going to achieve herd immunity if we don't immunize children."

This is especially important for protecting high-risk individuals. "If someone in your household has a weakened immune system, you want to make sure everybody around them is immunized," he explains. "Right now, the big hole we have is that we are not immunizing children."

3. Preventing COVID-19 variants: Stopping the spread of COVID-19 is extremely important in stopping new variants from emerging. The more the virus spreads from person to person, the more chance it has to mutate into a potentially more infectious or dangerous strain.

"If we can stop the circulation of the virus through immunization, we're going to reduce the likelihood that more virulent viruses emerge," Dr. Kahn says. "Getting children vaccinated is key to having this happen."

4. Improving well-being for children: Finally, by vaccinating children and reducing outbreaks, communities can move one step closer to regular, non-interrupted school schedules, sports, playdates and extracurricular activities for kids. This is vital to improving the physical and mental health of children who have been missing those opportunities for the past year.

"It's been a very difficult year for parents and children, and we don't want to go through this again," says Dr. Kahn. "All the more reason to vaccinate children."

Are there side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine in children?

Children may experience some of the same COVID-19 vaccine side effects reported in adults, including:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Pain in the arm near the shot site
  • Tiredness

These side effects may be more common after the second dose and are a sign that your body is building protection. Side effects typically go away within 1-2 days after vaccination.

Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for children with chronic health conditions?

Yes, the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and recommended for children with chronic health conditions.

Children with underlying medical conditions – including diabetes, sickle cell disease, cancer, cystic fibrosis, kidney disease and more – may be more likely to get severely ill if they get COVID-19. Therefore, it's even more important that these children receive the vaccine.

Should my child get the COVID-19 vaccine if they already had COVID-19?

Yes, your child should get the COVID-19 vaccine even if they already had COVID-19. Studies have shown that the vaccines can trigger a COVID-19 immune response stronger than the one naturally present in people who had COVID-19.

"What's striking from the data is that the vaccine is actually doing a better job than nature in terms of inducing immunity," Dr. Kahn says.

As a result, Dr. Kahn says children who have already had COVID-19 should get the vaccine, as it will help boost their immune response and ensure they are protected.

Will my child need to get a yearly shot for COVID-19?

It is not yet known if children and adults will need to get a COVID-19 vaccine every year, similar to an annual flu shot. Researchers are currently learning more about how long immunity lasts from the vaccine, and how effective the vaccine is against new variants. Both these factors will influence the need for a possible booster shot.

Dr. Kahn hopes parents on the fence about getting their kids the COVID-19 vaccine will consider the many benefits of the shot – in terms of their own family's protection from COVID-19 as well protection for their community.

"We have to get this pandemic under control," Dr. Kahn says. "If we're not immunizing children, we're never going to get there."

Where can my child get the COVID-19 vaccine?

Children’s Health is offering COVID-19 vaccinations for children ages 12 and older as supply allows. See information about availability and scheduling here.

There are many additional vaccine locations for ages 12 and older throughout the North Texas community. You can also check vaccines.gov for a COVID-19 vaccination site near you.

For more information about the COVID-19 vaccine, watch a video of our virtual town hall.

Many parents have questions or feel uncertain about getting their child vaccinated against COVID-19. An infectious disease expert at Children's Health answers common questions to help parents navigate their decision.

More COVID-19 resources

Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family during this time. See more resources to keep your family healthy at the Children's Health COVID-19 hub.

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