RALEIGH, N.C. — For many families, the day they can get their young children vaccinated against COVID-19 can't come soon enough.
But others aren't so eager. Whether because of fear of side effects or needles, or an ambivalence over the need for the vaccine, many parents aren't in a rush to get their children ages 5 to 11 vaccinated, despite endorsements from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine the agencies authorized is the same one given to hundreds of millions of adults and older children worldwide, though in smaller doses — 10 micrograms instead of 30. As with adults, two doses three weeks apart are required to create the full antibody response against coronavirus infection.
The CDC estimates that making vaccine available to children 5 to 11 will prevent about 600,000 cases of COVID-19 by the end of March. Still, polling done for the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests only a third of parents are eager to have their children that age vaccinated, while another third say they want to wait to see how it's working.
A panel of doctors from UNC Medical School in Chapel Hill on Wednesday addressed some of the common concerns about vaccination shared by parents. Here's some of what they had to say:
Do young children need protection against COVID-19?
Before this summer, serious coronavirus infections among children were rare. The main argument for developing a vaccine for young children was to prevent them from carrying the virus and infecting others.
But the more contagious delta variant of the virus changed that, says Dr. David Wohl, an infectious disease expert at UNC. By the end of October, more than 8,300 children ages 5 to 11 had been hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States and 172 had died of the disease, according to the CDC.
"ICUs got chock full during the delta surge," Wohl said. "Pediatric ICUs got filled with people, too."
Now doctors recommend parents get their children vaccinated for their own protection, in addition to protecting the adults around them. The vaccine's track record for safety and effectiveness means they should do it with confidence, Wohl said.
"To me this is a really a no-brainer," he said. "The vaccines are safe. We tried it out on half of humanity before we gave it to 5- and 11-year-olds. We gave it to half the people on the planet. Can't do better than that to prove how safe and effective it is."
What about side effects?
There are side effects, and they're roughly the same in children as adults, said Dr. Peyton Thompson, a pediatric infectious diseases professor. But they tend to be mild (most commonly a sore arm) and not last long, Thompson said.
"While you're likely to have some fatigue, some headache, some body aches — I had them — they're likely to go away within a day or two after the vaccine," she said.
What about the heart conditions we've heard about?
There have been cases of an inflammatory heart condition known as myocarditis following vaccination for COVID-19. It's very rare, Thompson said, ranging from 20 to 40 cases for everyone 1 million doses of the vaccine. It occurs primarily in men in their late teens and 20s.
The COVID-related cases of myocarditis and a related condition called pericarditis have mostly been mild and are easily treated with medication and rest, according to the CDC.
Thompson said people who are worried about developing myocarditis should know that it's also a side effect of COVID-19, resulting in about 450 cases for every million people infected with the coronavirus.
What about long-term side effects?
The CDC says no long-term side effects have emerged from using the coronavirus vaccines. And that's because of how they work, said Thompson. The vaccines stimulate an immune response to the coronavirus, leaving behind antibodies that that are able to fight off future infections.
"I think there's a lot of misconception that this vaccine is somehow altering our bodies and our DNA, and that is not the case," Thompson said. "It does what it's supposed to do and creates an antibody response, and we want those antibodies around. We want them to stay around as long as they can to protect us.
"These things don't integrate into our DNA, they aren't part of us in the long term, and so we don't really need to worry about long-term side effects."
How can parents help children deal with their worries over the vaccine?
The first step is to determine what your child is worried about, said Dr. Herman Naftel, a professor of psychiatry who focuses on children and adolescents. Are they afraid of needles or think the shot is going to hurt, or do they have fears about the vaccine itself?
Naftel suggests talking with children, at an age-appropriate level, about why they're receiving the vaccine and what it will do.
"We want them to know that these vaccines have been studied extensively, probably more than any vaccine in history, and so we know that they're safe," he said.
Naftel suggests letting children choose who goes with them to get the shots and talk with them about what to expect.
"Maybe think about how things will play out at the pharmacy or their doctor's office and sort of rehearse how the vaccination will go," he said. "We probably want to remind kids that they've been vaccinated, most of them, numerous times and that for the vast majority they do just fine."
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