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Pfizer and Moderna are researching if COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective for children. Jokic / Getty Images
  • Currently, vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna are conducting trials in healthy children between the ages of 6 months and 11 years old.
  • These vaccine developers have enrolled thousands of children across the United States, Poland, Finland, and Spain.
  • Despite decreasing cases of COVID-19, the disease is still very apparent. Some children and many adults are still getting extremely sick, and some are even dying.

Despite some progress, the pandemic is still underway. Now, vaccine research is starting to extend its reach beyond teens and adults and on to younger children.

Although some may see children as “little adults,” children have different reactions to medications and vaccinations, so conducting clinical trials specific to that population is important to fully understand its benefits and potential side effects.

Currently, vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna are conducting trials in healthy children between the ages of 6 months and 11 years old. These developers have enrolled thousands of children across the United States, Poland, Finland, and Spain. 

Understandably, no one wants their family member to get COVID-19. But while the vaccines seem to be the pathway out of the pandemic and to protect against the disease, many parents have questions about vaccines for their loved ones under 12.

We talked to experts about some big questions parents may have about young children and COVID-19 vaccines.

With COVID-19 cases decreasing in the U.S., will children under 12 need to get a vaccine?

Despite decreasing cases of COVID-19, some children and many adults are still getting extremely sick, and some are even dying.

Although there’s not a definitive answer yet, the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices looked at the risks and benefits of vaccinating children under 12 just recently, according to Dr. C. Buddy Creech, director of the Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program, and professor of Pediatric Infectious Disease at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“We certainly see disease in young children, and we have had more COVID-19-related deaths in pediatrics than we do with influenza; as a result, the risk/benefit analysis is in favor of having vaccines available for children under 12 years of age, potentially focusing first on those with underlying health issues,” said Creech.

When do you think the vaccines will be available to children under 12? 

Although we currently don’t know exactly when we’re going to see the vaccines available for those under age 12, there have been some projections for the upcoming school year.

Dr. Alok Patel, a pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health said he’s optimistic a vaccine will be given emergency use authorization for children under age 12 by this fall.

“Pfizer is planning on submitting data for emergency use authorization of its COVID-19 vaccine for 5 through 11-year-old children in September or October — assuming the safety and efficacy profile is like older groups, we can expect an [authorized] vaccine shortly thereafter. For younger children, my educated guess is it may be later toward the end of 2021 or early 2022,” Patel said.

The timing of this vaccine for younger children is especially important as children will start to go back to school, and we now know that many people who are contracting the virus are those that are unvaccinated.

Why parents should get their children a vaccine even though many children don’t get very sick from COVID-19

While it’s true that young children are less likely to become severely ill from COVID-19, there’s still a chance.

Healthcare workers across the country have seen children of all ages get sick, be admitted, end up in the ICU, and some in rare circumstances die from the disease and its complications.

In some cases, children have developed multisystem inflammatory syndrome or MIS-C weeks or months after initially developing COVID-19, causing long-term health issues.

“We’re still learning about the spectrum of COVID in kids. The risk is also increased for any children with underlying comorbidities such as asthma, diabetes, or any type of immunosuppression,” Patel told Healthline.

Many experts agree that it’s possible to open schools to kids for in-person learning before all school-aged children are fully vaccinated. However, it’s important to take precautions as much as possible to reduce transmission from one child to another.

Practices such as mask wearing, distancing, and ventilation can all assist in lowering risk.

Patel reminds everyone that “herd immunity can indirectly protect young children and others who are not yet vaccinated, and parents should consider the case rate and vaccination rate in their own communities when making [a] decision for how to best protect their children against COVID-19.”

Dr. Teresa Murray Amato, chair of emergency medicine at Long Island Jewish Hospital encourages parents to: “Speak to their pediatricians regarding the appropriateness of their child receiving the vaccine, as vaccinating children could lead to less spread of the virus to more vulnerable populations.”

Ensuring that information is from a reliable source is important in making decisions about vaccinating your child.

Having an open dialogue about the risks, benefits, and questions with a physician can assure you of the vaccine’s safety for your child and what it may mean for your family.

What concerns are you hearing from parents? 

Many parents are eagerly waiting for the vaccine’s authorization, but some still have their concerns about the vaccines.

“I think the biggest concern right now is whether the side effect profile in children will be similar to that of adults,” Creech said. “If so, parents will have a lot of confidence that this is a safe and effective vaccine.”

Vaccine researchers are doing all they can to understand the most significant side effects associated with the vaccines — continuously via previous studies with adults and with new findings in the studies that evaluate children.

“We always make safety our first priority, in the spirit of ‘first, do no harm.’ Parents and children can have confidence in that,” said Creech.

How do you address the concerns of people who may not want to get their children vaccinated? 

“It is our job as healthcare providers, scientists, and vaccinologists to listen carefully to concerns and try our best to provide solid, helpful information,” Creech said.

He pointed out that having an open dialogue is important in the medical decision-making process. Understanding concerns, providing data, and addressing questions that are based on false information can help not only care for patients but dispel false information.

“I think at this stage of the pandemic, it is clear to us in medicine that vaccinations for COVID-19 are highly safe and effective. That does not mean that rare side effects cannot happen, but it does mean that those rare side effects should be understood in context since the risk of complications after disease remains much, much higher than the 1 in a million rare events we sometimes see after vaccination,” Creech explained.

Can we expect similar side effects from the vaccines in children?

The COVID-19 vaccines have a remarkable safety profile. There’s no reason to believe that young children will react any differently than older children.

“In clinical trials, children aged 12 to 17 tolerated the vaccine very well, without any severe adverse side effects reported. Even still, younger children deserve their own separate trial; younger immune systems may react differently to the vaccine,” said Patel.

He pointed out that the data will be thoroughly reviewed by the CDC, Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, and FDA prior to the vaccines being administered to children under age 12.

There are some serious side effects, including myocarditis, reported in young adults and teens who have been vaccinated. But experts point out the risk from developing COVID-19 is far higher.

“Parents should remember both myocarditis and pericarditis following COVID-19 vaccine administration are extremely rare events,” Patel told Healthline.

The CDC reviewed the potential link between myocarditis and COVID-19 and found in 12- to 39-year-olds, heart inflammation occurred at a rate of 12.6 cases per million second doses given. The rate after the first dose was 4.4 cases per million doses administered.

Patel reminds parents of two key points regarding myocarditis or inflammation of the heart: “The cases of heart inflammation tend to be mild and self-resolving, and that taking your chances with COVID is worse than with the vaccine, as the virus itself can cause heart inflammation alongside MIS-C, organ damage, and worse.”

“Also, given how rare the cases of myocarditis/pericarditis are and the known risks from the actual virus, it’s not surprising the American Heart Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, CDC, and other medical groups still recommend teens get the vaccine,” Patel said.