Nearly 30 million kids ages 5 to 11 are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. Parents, though, still have questions, and many are waiting to get their children vaccinated. The emergence of the omicron variant makes this hesitation a risky choice for kids and for our communities.
In the decade since becoming a pediatrician, I have never seen so many kids excited for a shot, with some even joyfully lining up at the doors of doctor’s offices and other places where the shots are offered. These lines are deceptive, though, as evidence suggests excited families are in the minority.
Recent polling by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that about 30% of parents said they definitely would not get their 5- to 11-year-old vaccinated, and another 32% were planning to “wait and see.” This and other data portend that a majority of eligible 5- to 11-year-olds will not be vaccinated by the end of the year, and aligns with what I am seeing with my own patients.
Disinformation is rampant, and parents still have questions. And because in many cases vaccination has become a political statement, rather than a medical decision, parents may be less comfortable seeking the answers they need. The three most common questions I hear from parents regarding the COVID-19 vaccine and kids involve reports of myocarditis, concerns about infertility and the possibility of unknown long-term side effects.
Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle, and is a rare side effect that has been seen following receipt of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines. (The Pfizer vaccine is the only one available for children 5 to 11.) It is also a known complication of COVID-19 itself – myocarditis is not only more common following infection, but heart issues caused by the disease can be more severe as well. There were no cases of myocarditis in the clinical trial for the 5- to 11-year-old age group. This is not a surprise, given the size of the trial and how rarely the condition occurs. But the relatively few cases that may show up are likely to be far milder than those we’ve seen following COVID-19.
Regarding infertility, there is no evidence to suggest that COVID-19 vaccination will have any impact on future fertility. A theory behind this myth has been completely disproved, and we also have real-life evidence to prove it’s wrong. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, has noted study data showing that 4,800 people in a monitoring system for tracking COVID vaccine side effects have had a positive pregnancy test after receiving a vaccine.
The last common question, regarding long-term side effects, is a little bit trickier to answer. No one can predict the future with absolute certainty, but using all of the information we have, we can try our best.
The first thing to consider is that while this particular vaccine is new, it is not experimental. Work on mRNA vaccines began decades ago. We also have robust, reassuring clinical trial data in the 5- to 11-year-old age group. All of this indicates that the vaccine is safe for young children.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has been tied to long-term complications that absolutely have impacted kids, including long COVID and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C. In fact, children ages 5 to 11 are at higher risk than any other age group for developing MIS-C. At the same time, we have no evidence to suggest that the COVID-19 vaccine will cause long-term complications.
There are still far more questions than answers regarding the omicron variant, which is now spreading rapidly in the United States. We cannot afford to wait and see what happens. Vaccines are still our most powerful tool to protect ourselves and our children, and we need to use them.
As families gather for the December holidays, the risk to unvaccinated children remains. And until we stop the spread of this virus, the pandemic will continue.
The approval of a vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds can potentially move us 28 million steps closer to the end of this pandemic. But only if we ask the questions, get the answers and get in line to vaccinate our children.