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A parent’s guide to the COVID-19 vaccine for kids
We’ve got answers to 7 of your most essential questions about vaccinating younger children against COVID-19.
It’s been a long wait, but the moment is finally here: Kids ages 5 to 11 can now be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Word arrived at the end of October that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had voted for emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for this younger group of children. On Nov. 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave its final recommendation. These decisions could change life in elementary schools, on playgrounds and in families across the country.
Just ask Maya Huber, 10, who lives in New Jersey. She took part in the COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial for kids at Rutgers University.
“She was so excited that she was selected,” says her mom, Nisha Gandhi. “She wants other kids to know that the shots didn’t hurt any more than any other vaccines. Her only side effect was a sore arm for a couple of hours afterward. Now she’s hoping that when all kids are vaccinated, she can have a huge sleepover with her friends.”
Do you have little kids who are ready for pajama parties — or for traveling with their soccer team or going to the movies? The COVID-19 vaccine could help make all that fun happen again. But before you take them for that shot in the arm, you may have some questions and concerns.
“Lots of the parents in my practice are uncertain about the vaccine, and that’s fair,” says Ashanti Woods, M.D. Dr. Woods is a pediatrician with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
“They’re worried about everything from side effects to misinformation they’ve heard about chips controlling their kids. But I want them to know that there’s been a process to ensure that the vaccine is safe and that COVID is very real,” says Dr. Woods. “While most kids have a milder infection than adults, there have been (some) pediatric deaths. If those families could get their kids vaccinated, they’d do it in a heartbeat.”
The virus is still very much with us: Between the first week in September and Oct. 28, there were 1.3 million new cases of childhood COVID-19 in the U.S., according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). (Worried someone in your family has COVID? Order a home testing kit now.)
That makes the vaccine even more important. So we turned to the experts with your most essential questions. Here are their answers.
1. I thought kids had a lower risk of catching COVID-19. Why do they need a vaccine?
Turns out, children aren’t as safe from COVID-19 as we thought at the start of the pandemic. As of the beginning of December, nearly 6.4 million kids had tested positive, making up 16.6% of total cases. And just under 1,000 children have died from the disease, according to the CDC. The vaccine can slash your child’s risk of being one of these statistics.
“I’ve had young patients who have spent time in the ICU as a result of severe COVID,” says Dr. Woods. “Some had mild COVID illness but experienced complications a month or two later. And a few have had multisystem inflammatory syndrome.” MIS-C is a potentially dangerous condition in children where the heart, lungs, brain or other organs become inflamed.
And even if kids don’t become seriously ill, they can pass the virus on to vulnerable family members. Those include grandparents or relatives with other health conditions. The best way to protect your child and everyone else in your family: the vaccine. (Get the basics about testing for COVID-19 at home.)
2. Is the COVID-19 vaccine safe for children?
Yes. According to the CDC, it’s gone through the most intensive safety monitoring of any vaccine in U.S. history. And the mRNA technology used to develop the vaccine had been in development for a long time, says Maya Ramagopal, M.D. She’s an associate professor of pediatrics in the division of pulmonary medicine at Rutgers University’s Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
“People sometimes think the whole process was rushed through, but that’s simply not correct,” says Dr. Ramagopal. “We didn’t just come up with the idea yesterday. The mRNA vaccine technology was developed more than 30 years ago. Because of the groundwork that had already been done, we were able to move more quickly. When the pandemic hit, scientists developed a vaccine against the spike protein using the same technology. The pandemic meant that we couldn’t drag our feet.”
Instead of using the actual virus, the Pfizer shot is an mRNA vaccine, she explains. It can’t make your child sick. “It sends a little message to your cells to say, ‘Okay, you have to boost your immune system and make antibodies to this virus.’ It’s not a live vaccine. It won’t give you COVID.”
According to the FDA, none of the more than 3,000 kids ages 5 to 11 in the clinical trials experienced any serious side effects.
3. Is the COVID-19 vaccine as effective for kids as it is for adults?
The numbers tell the story: The vaccine was 90.7% effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in children ages 5 to 11, according to the AAP. “The data suggests that young children’s immune systems are reacting exactly the way we expected them to, given the lower dose,” says Dr. Ramagopal. “It may not always prevent infection, but it will prevent serious illness.”
4. Which side effects can occur in children who receive the COVID-19 vaccine?
Turns out, kids experience pretty much the same side effects as adults. Those include injection site pain, low-grade fever, a runny nose and other upper respiratory symptoms. “They’re minor and they don’t last more than a day or two,” says Dr. Ramagopal. “Some adults complain of fatigue and muscle pain, but we didn’t see that in kids.”
If your children experience a fever or some aches and pains, you can give them ibuprofen (Advil®) or acetaminophen (Tylenol®). But don’t pretreat them with pain relievers in the hope of avoiding side effects. That could affect their immune response to the vaccine.
5. I’ve heard about some teens and young men getting myocarditis after the shot. Is my young child at risk?
Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle that happens when the immune system reacts to a trigger, such as an infection. It’s a serious condition, and it got a lot of attention when some young males experienced it after their second COVID-19 shot.
But even among this group, it’s extremely rare. One study showed that among males between the ages of 12 and 29, there were fewer than 50 cases for every million second doses of the vaccine, according to findings published in the CDC’s Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report. And in clinical trials on younger children, there were no cases of myocarditis at all.
But if you’re worried about myocarditis, consider this: Not getting your child vaccinated could actually increase the chances that your child will get the condition. According to the CDC report above, the risk of myocarditis for kids younger than 16 is 37 times higher for those who get COVID-19 than for those who don’t. That’s another good reason to get your child vaccinated.
6. If my child recently received another vaccine, can they also get the COVID-19 shot?
Yes. According to the CDC, your child’s body develops an immune response whether they get the shot alone or with other vaccines. So there’s no need to put it off.
Your child can get a flu shot and a COVID-19 shot at the same time, which is important to prevent a double whammy during the winter influenza season. Talk to your pediatrician about the right vaccine schedule for your child.
7. Can the vaccine affect my son’s or daughter’s ability to have a child in the future?
There’s no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine can affect future fertility. In a study that looked at women who’d been vaccinated, there were no differences in pregnancy success rates compared to women who hadn’t received the shot, according to a paper published in Fertility & Sterility Reports.
And another study in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that 4,800 women had a positive pregnancy test after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. For males, researchers at the University of Miami in Florida found no changes in the sperm of men who’d been vaccinated.
If you have other questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, don’t hesitate to reach out to your child’s pediatrician.
COVID-19 vaccine recommendations: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021). “COVID-19 Vaccination for Children 5 Through 11 Years Old”
COVID-19 statistics in children: American Academy of Pediatrics (2021). “Children and COVID-19: State Level Data Report”
Myocarditis statistics: Mortality and Morbidity Weekly Report (2021). “Association Between COVID-19 and Myocarditis Using Hospital-Based Administrative Data — United States, March 2020–January 2021”
COVID vaccine and fertility: Fertility & Sterility Report (2021). “SARS-CoV-2 Spike Protein Seropositivity from Vaccination or Infection Does Not Cause Sterility”
New England Journal of Medicine (2021). “Preliminary Findings of mRNA Covid-19 Vaccine Safety in Pregnant Persons”
JAMA (2021). “Sperm Parameters Before and After COVID-19 mRNA Vaccination”