The Pfizer vaccine is available to adolescents ages 12 to 15 as of spring 2021, yet some parents remain hesitant in allowing their children to get it. While the reasons for this age-specific concern remain unclear, it seems many parents are concerned the vaccine may affect their children differently, or cause more serious side affects in them than it had in adults. Some even think vaccination causes infertility and/or affects puberty, though it does not.
“It is natural to worry about children, because I also worry about children,” Dr. Hina Talib, M.D., Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore and Spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says of these concerns.
That said, while taking precautions can feel like a normal part of parenting, avoiding the vaccine isn’t one medical professionals recommend.
“I am especially grateful we have a safe and effective vaccine option against COVID-19 infection, which has already infected 3.9 million children,” Talib says of the vaccine’s efficiency in children. “There is no cause for concern that this vaccine may impact younger patients differently. The studies have shown that the side effect profile is similar to adults.”
“The Pfizer vaccine has been shown to be safe for ages 12 and older through clinical trials and then rigorous reviews by the FDA and CDC,” she continues. “The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also recommends this vaccine to all eligible children.”
Dr. Jan Bonhoeffer, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics, Infectious Diseases & Vaccines at University Children’s Hospital in Basel, also understands parents’ initial hesitancy. “This is a very reasonable concern. Children and adolescents are not small adults,” he points out, adding that this is the exact reason why why such large studies are ongoing across the globe, investigating the safety of COVID vaccines in these age groups.
Bonhoeffer also notes the recent data, published in The New England Journal of Medicine on May 27, on the safety and efficacy of Covid vaccines on adolescents. “Efficacy is established and the safety looks promising,” he says of the findings.
I thought children were “low-risk.” Why do they need the vaccine?
“‘Low-risk’ doesn’t mean ‘no-risk,’” says Dr. Robert L. Quigley M.D., an immunologist specializing in infectious disease and Global Medical Director of International SOS. “While cases are rarer, children can still transmit COVID-19 and even become very ill. Vaccinating children will help protect the people they spend most time around, like parents, grandparents and teachers who may not just be more vulnerable but immunocompromised.”
Quigley goes on to share a troubling anecdote: There are 17 million adolescents in the United States, which accounts for 5.3 percent of the population. Between March 30 and April 21, the CDC reported a whopping 1.5 million cases in this specific population.
“The number of cases is likely much higher as many infected were either asymptomatic and/or never tested,” Quigley continues, which is true: Once adjusted for underreporting, the CDC reported this number as 22.2 million.
“For this reason alone, there is a justification to immunize them all.”
What if a child’s parents are vaccinated? Isn’t that enough?
While Bonhoeffer says that Covid is technically transmitted more often from adults to children than the other way around, families still must account for everyone else they encounter in their lives.
“Children need to be protected from unvaccinated individuals,” Talib explains. “So if their parents are vaccinated that is a terrific start, but if they are encountering other people throughout their day, as we hope they are, then masks are one way to help reduce their risk.”
“Children deserve to be protected from COVID-19 infection just as much as adults do,” she adds. “While their risk seems to be lower, they can still get sick. 300 to 600 children have died from COVID-19.” What about the side effects?
Clinical trials have found that there are side effects when adolescents receive the vaccine, but such is the case for adults, as well. Either way, this is no reason to evade getting vaccinated entirely.
“Vaccine trials have shown that 12 to 15-year old’s have experienced the same type of side effects that we’ve seen in older teens and adults, but with a slight increase. This includes flu-like symptoms like fevers [and] body aches,” says Quigley.
“Younger people have a more robust immune system, which could be one of the reasons for the slight increase in side effects,” he continues. “Remember that these symptoms are not only manageable, but also temporary, and should not contraindicate administration of the vaccine.”
Bonhoeffer concurs. “Some will have local reactions and general signs of inflammation as we may expect from any vaccination. Serious adverse reactions are likely to be rare.”
What if it affects them in the long run?
If you’re still concerned about how vaccination may affect children in the long run — here is some calming insight — from pediatricians.
“mRNA vaccines do not and cannot interfere with the genes of your teens,” Bonhoeffer asserts.
Talib agrees, addressing the vaccine-hesitant elephant in the room: “There is no evidence or plausible mechanism for puberty, growth and[/or] future fertility to be affected by this vaccine, or any other vaccines.”