“My partner and I are both vaccinated and planning on vaccinating our 8-year-old and 5-year-old now that they’re eligible. But is there any benefit to waiting a few more weeks or months to do so until we have more data available?”
The decision to get a COVID-19 vaccine is full of emotions for many, increasingly so since the vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 became a part of the equation. While so many parents want to lean into the science, at the same time I’m hearing them share plenty of feelings of anxiety about the decision.
Given the amount of information, misinformation, and disinformation that exists, it’s hard to know what source to believe. The two most common questions I receive from parents are: should I wait and what about myocarditis? Let me tackle each one in turn below.
Should I wait to vaccinate my young child/children? Is there a benefit to waiting?
My short answer is no. The data indicate that the vaccine is safe and effective in preventing COVID-19 infection among children within the 5 to 11 age group and there is no need to wait. The COVID-19 vaccines work to help us all protect ourselves and others against significant COVID-19 illness and moves us along in our collective goal to put this pandemic to an end.
And here’s my longer answer. Pfizer-BioNTech reported 90.7 percent effectiveness of their vaccine in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 without any serious side effects. These results were part of a trial of about 4,500 children within the 5 to 11 age range, a study sample appropriately sized and selected to achieve statistical power. Of note, more than 1.9 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported in this age group; more than 8,300 of those cases have required hospitalization, and there have been 94 deaths. Side effects of the vaccine in this group are mild, and mostly include soreness at the site of infection, headache, fatigue, and muscle aches. (Interestingly, I’ve found that many parents are reporting that their children had zero side effects.) The various advisory committees to both the FDA and the CDC unanimously voted to approve the emergency use authorization of this vaccine, noting that the benefits of children receiving the vaccine greatly outweigh any potential risks. This is especially true for children with weakened immune systems or underlying medical conditions, although it should be noted that about 30 percent of those children hospitalized with COVID-19 had no past medical history.
As we move into winter and colder weather and activities shift indoors, the exposure risk increases, so getting children fully vaccinated as soon as possible will help keep them safe.
But what about myocarditis?
I hear this concern daily, which is fair given that there is a rare but legitimate safety signal and a link noted between the vaccine and myocarditis, which is an inflammatory condition of the heart muscle caused by a viral infection. Myocarditis can happen with many different viruses, including SARS-CoV-2. But let’s understand the risk with a little more depth.
The first key point to know is that the risk of getting myocarditis due to COVID-19 infection is far greater than the risk of getting myocarditis from receiving the vaccine. This conclusion was reached through data from the adolescent cohort, but physicians believe that since younger children are less likely to get myocarditis in general, the risk will be even lower in the 5 to 11 age group. Because it’s such a rare event, it will take more time to see where the numbers truly land. It’s worth noting that by and large, in these rare vaccine linked cases, which the CDC has reported among mostly male teens and young adults, the symptoms were very mild and resolved on their own, about 75 percent within three months with minimal intervention. This is a different scenario from myocarditis after COVID-19 infection, which tends to be more severe and prolonged.
The bottom line
I want parents to know that they are not alone in experiencing feelings of excitement and relief mixed with a little anxiety and hesitation. That’s completely normal; we all want to ensure we’re making the best decisions possible for the safety and health of our children.
In the current climate where fear is often cultivated, especially on social media, it’s understandable that many emotions come to the surface as we prepare to take this next step with our kids. I want to urge parents to reach out to their child’s pediatrician or other healthcare professionals to work through their concerns rather than relying on scary anecdotes that aren’t backed by science. We’re here to answer your questions and help you through your decision-making.
As pediatricians, we want parents and their children to feel confident in the decisions they make and to help provide as much education as we can. We do that by analyzing and curating the available data, and then we provide the facts to avoid confusion from all the online misinformation. We want to offer our support as both an expert source and a compassionate partner in the care of your child. It’s why we spent so many years in training, and why we chose pediatrics as our specialty. Trust us.
Dr. Christina Johns is a pediatrician + Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatrics, the largest pediatric urgent care group in the U.S.