Most moms and dads will do anything to keep their kids safe. So when it comes to giving children COVID vaccines, some parents are understandably cautious.
Elizabeth Mack, MD, is also cautious. Her job as a pediatric intensive care physician is to protect and care for children. That means she not only treats children at MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, but also researches issues that concern them.
Here, Mack, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, with a Master of Science degree in addition to her medical degree, addresses some of parents’ biggest concerns about COVID shots.
“You’re trying to experiment on our children.”
Mack hears from many parents who are concerned that the vaccines are being approved too soon. They are used to it taking years to develop vaccines.
“But the difference here is that the mRNA vaccine technology is not new,” she said, referring to the way the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines work.
dr. Elizabeth Mack
Scientists at the National Institutes of Health have been working on ways to fight coronaviruses well before the pandemic. They created a vaccine that could be modified. So when COVID-19 showed up, researchers were able to quickly develop new shots.
At this time, children 12 years and older can receive the Pfizer vaccine. Younger children may soon have it too. Last week, the Food and Drug Administration approved the emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine in 5- to 11-year-olds. This week, a panel of experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will give its assessment.
Mack said the data is also being closely watched by pediatricians and epidemiologists. “There are a lot of phone calls and healthy discussions about the data, like how much do we trust them? How inclusive are they? So it’s not just a given that everything gets approved. I hope people understand that.”
“Do the Vaccines Affect Puberty and Future Fertility?”
“We’re often asked that,” Mack says. “That’s been researched and it doesn’t interfere with puberty, and it hasn’t interfered with fertility. Vaccination is even recommended for women of childbearing age and/or pregnant.”
The North American Society for Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology released a statement addressing the pediatric concerns: “There is no plausible biological mechanism or evidence to support the concern that puberty or growth would be altered by COVID-19 vaccines.” Other scientists have made similar statements, noting that the vaccines do not penetrate the cell nucleus, so they cannot alter a child’s DNA or affect adolescent development.
“There are no long-term studies of the impact of the COVID vaccine on children.”
“I appreciate the concerns about long-term data, but COVID hasn’t been around long enough for that. But we do know the short-term danger of COVID and MIS-C.” MIS-C stands for multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. “We’ve lost some kids to those things,” Mack said.
“In the age group of 5 to 11, about 1.9 million children, about 9% of cases in the US, are infected with COVID-19. About 8,300 children have been hospitalized with COVID-19. And at least 94 have died.”
“The vaccine can cause heart problems.”
“There’s been a lot of press about vaccine-associated myocarditis and stuff like that. And I think it’s important to remember that anything can be reported to VAERS,” said Mack, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains those VAERS reports. But it says the benefits of vaccination — preventing COVID-19 and its complications, including long-term problems, hospitalization and, in rare cases, death — far outweigh the potential risks for most people.
Mack said the cases of myocarditis she sees come not from vaccination, but from MIS-C and COVID. “We routinely care for children in our ICUs who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 with COVID-associated myocarditis. This is a very real, immediate risk.”
“Children are not at risk of really getting sick with COVID.”
“That changed with Delta,” Mack said.
Delta, the highly contagious variety, helped the coronavirus spread more easily. More children became ill, resulting in more children ending up in hospital. At MUSC Shawn Jenkins Children’s Hospital, some young COVID patients became so sick that they had to use a last resort form of life support called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO.
“We are currently in the midst of a MIS-C peak, predictably following our COVID peaks by one to two months,” Mack said.
While South Carolina’s COVID numbers have fallen far from our recent peak in what one scientist called part of a two-month cycle, there is concern that we’ll see another wave of COVID cases this winter.
“Children react poorly to the vaccine.”
“That is definitely something we monitor. All receivers must be observed for a certain period of time. But we haven’t seen any that have resulted in hospitalizations throughout the pandemic,” Mack said. “Ultimately, in the ICU we see children with COVID and children with MIS-C, not children who have been vaccinated.”
Among the more than 3,000 children aged 5 to 11 years in the vaccine trials, none had anaphylaxis or myocarditis. The most common reactions were injection site pain, fatigue and headache.
The CDC is following VAERS for reports of serious problems after vaccination, but calls them rare. Mack said small, short-term reactions are what parents should prepare for. “Having pain in the area is very common with an injection. You can also have a fever, fatigue, that sort of thing.”
Her major concern is that parents’ reluctance is causing too few children to be vaccinated, putting them at risk of contracting COVID. “A lot of people assume that there will be rapid uptake in 5 to 11 year olds. I expect it to be even less than what we currently have in the older kids. We are still at 30% of our 12-19 year olds who are fully vaccinated against COVID in this state.”