COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective for children

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Doctor administers vaccine to adolescent girl.
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While cases and deaths from COVID-19 continue to decline, we’re far from achieving the kind of herd, or population, immunity that would reduce the urgency for everyone to get vaccinated.

Now that the FDA has extended the emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to include children between the ages of 12-15, some parents might wonder whether to vaccinate their kids.

“Based on a big trial of 2,260 adolescents in that age range, the vaccine was incredibly effective,” says Kara Kelly, MD, Chair of the Roswell Park Oishei Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Program. “There were no cases of symptomatic COVID infection in those who had the vaccine, compared to 18 cases in those who were given the placebo.”

In addition, those who received the vaccine had a very strong immune response to the vaccine — in some cases, an even stronger response than that observed in older adults.

“In terms of safety, it was incredibly safe,” Dr. Kelly says. “There were no serious adverse effects. The side effects were similar to what’s been observed in older adults: headache and fatigue.

"One of the points we want to keep emphasizing in talking to parents is that this vaccine is monitored very closely. There’s so much awareness of it, and we are all very sensitized to the reporting of any issues.”

While most children who do develop a COVID-19 infection don’t get as sick as adults, she stresses that there’s a secondary infection that can cause long-lasting damage to a child’s health. “There’s a multi-system inflammatory syndrome that occurs in children that is rare but can be severe," Dr. Kelly says. "Many of the patients end up in the intensive care unit. They develop everything from inflammation of the heart, which can persist for some time, to blood clots or neurological complications, including coma and seizure."

As with adults who were healthy before contracting COVID-19, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why one healthy child will develop this inflammatory syndrome and another will be spared, she says. “The safest thing is to get immunized and prevent the COVID infection to begin with.”

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Think outside the home and help protect others

As more places and activities reopen, vaccinated adults will enjoy more opportunities for fun this summer and kids will get ready for summer camp. Children with cancer and blood disorders — and their siblings — will leave their family "bubbles" and may come in contact with people who are infected with COVID. Parents should consider the risks of those interactions and make appointments for their teenage children to get the vaccine to help protect them from being infected by others.

“A lot of pediatric patients won’t have access to the vaccine, because they’re not old enough,” Dr. Kelly says. “We as a society really should be thinking about anyone and everyone, not just ourselves. I remember going to school and getting my polio and smallpox vaccines. That’s just what we all did. There were very high rates of vaccination to help protect everyone.”

Roswell Park is offering COVID vaccines to our age-appropriate patients, but those young patients might not achieve full protection. “There is data suggesting that cancer patients do not mount the same immune response as a person with a normal immune system," notes Dr. Kelly. "They’re still at risk.

"If we can all get together and help protect them, that’s the right thing to do. We strongly encourage their parents and other household contacts who are eligible for the vaccine to get it for that reason — to help protect their child. That’s really the most effective way to prevent COVID from coming into the household.”