The coronavirus has been threatening the health of children and families, sending hundreds of children to the hospital and keeping millions out of school during this pandemic. Now parents can breathe a collective sigh of relief.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has granted emergency use authorization (EUA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for young children ages 5-11, bringing 25 million families one step closer to a sense of normalcy.

The Pfizer vaccine is currently the only COVID-19 vaccine authorized for use in this younger age group. The vaccine has been FDA-approved for ages 16 and older and continues to be available through EUA for ages 12-15. The other COVID-19 vaccines, Moderna and Janssen (J&J), are also available through EUA for ages 18 and up.

The latest decision comes at a pivotal moment, as pediatric cases of COVID-19 have increased in the country amidst the highly contagious delta variant. More than 6 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. September was the worst month for new COVID-19 cases and deaths among children in the U.S., with more than 1 million new COVID-19 cases recorded.

Getting children vaccinated will help them stay safe during the school year and winter ahead and protect vulnerable family members at risk for severe complications of the disease.

Is the vaccine safe for kids?

Yes. To date, 185 million people ages 12 and up in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, under the most intensive safety monitoring in the country’s history. As with all other routine vaccinations for children, the COVID-19 vaccine has undergone thorough and rigorous scientific and regulatory processes to ensure it is safe and effective for children. Although COVID-19 vaccines are new, the mRNA technology used in Pfizer’s vaccine has been in development for almost two decades.

To study the vaccine in younger children, a clinical trial was conducted in which 3,100 children ages 5-11 safely received the Pfizer vaccine, and no serious side effects were reported. The vaccine was found to be safe, well-tolerated and 90.7% effective in preventing COVID-19 in children in this age group.

How does the vaccine work for kids?

The Pfizer vaccine is an mRNA vaccine. It contains a portion of mRNA that sends the body’s cells instructions to make a harmless piece of spike protein, the button on the surface of the SARS-CoV2 virus, initiating an immune response that teaches the body how to fight the virus if exposed.

The material never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where DNA is kept, so the vaccine does not change or interact with DNA in any way. Once it has initiated an immune response, the vaccine itself breaks down rapidly and is cleared from the body. The vaccine does not contain the live virus that causes COVID-19 and cannot cause infection with COVID-19.

Do young children get the same vaccine as adults?

Just like for adults, the Pfizer vaccine for young children is an injection in the arm and is administered in two doses, 21 days (three weeks) apart. The difference is that children ages 5-11 receive a lower-dose version of the vaccine — 10 micrograms, compared to 30 micrograms for ages 12 and up. Data show that the smaller dose produces the same strong immune response in young children with fewer side effects.

If COVID-19 tends to be mild for them, why do children need to be vaccinated?

While serious COVID-19 infections have been rare among young children, experts are still recommending vaccination. The vaccine helps children build protection against COVID-19 safely, without having to get sick with the actual coronavirus, which is very unpredictable.

According to the CDC, 8,300 children ages 5-11 have been hospitalized with COVID-19 and 172 have died. Also, more than 5,200 children and teens have developed MIS-C (multi-system inflammatory syndrome), a rare but serious condition linked to the disease. Children can also suffer from lingering symptoms after a COVID-19 infection — including months-long fatigue, pain, headaches, insomnia and trouble concentrating.

Children who are immunocompromised or have health issues (obesity, chronic respiratory conditions, etc.) are at higher risk for severe or life-threatening cases of COVID-19. Children with COVID-19 can also spread it to a more vulnerable person. Although children rarely die from the disease, any death of a child is tragic, especially when it could have been prevented.

Are vaccine side effects different in children?

In clinical trials, the side effects of the vaccine for children were comparable to those seen in ages 12 and older, with the most commonly reported side effects being sore arm, fatigue, headache, muscle/joint pain, fever and chills. Side effects generally went away within a few days. No serious side effects were reported. Allergies to Pfizer’s vaccine ingredients are rare; the vaccine does not contain eggs, preservatives or latex.

In very rare cases, the Pfizer vaccine has been linked to myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle that can also be caused by bacterial and viral infections including COVID-19), mostly in males ages 12-17. In most cases, symptoms appeared within a few days of the second dose and went away quickly. In Pfizer’s clinical trial for ages 5-11, there were no cases of myocarditis.

What about long-term effects of the vaccine for children?

As with adults, serious side effects that could cause a long-term health problem are extremely unlikely following COVID-19 vaccination for children. Millions of people have already received the vaccine, and no long-term side effects have been detected. Experts believe the vaccine is safe for growing bodies and should not affect puberty, fertility or brain development. The long-term effects of an actual COVID-19 infection, on the other hand, can be serious, devastating and long-lasting.

How long does immunity last from vaccination?

As with the adult vaccines, it’s unknown how long the COVID-19 vaccine will protect children ages 5-11 against infection or whether boosters will be needed. At the same time, we don’t know how long protection lasts after someone recovers from a COVID-19 infection, and reinfection can happen. Even if a child already had COVID-19, vaccination is still recommended as it gives the child a boosted immune response and strong protection.

Do you need to space out the COVID vaccine from other immunizations?

The CDC says that for ages 12 and up, it is safe to get the flu and other vaccines at the same time as a COVID-19 vaccine, as the side effects are generally the same when given alone or with other vaccines.

What about a vaccine for kids from Moderna or Johnson & Johnson?

Moderna has shared promising results from its vaccine trial in this age group and said it plans to submit data to the FDA soon for its COVID-19 vaccine for children. Johnson & Johnson is currently conducting vaccine trials in children as well.

What else do parents need to know?

Expanding vaccination to children as young as 5 is an important step in protecting children and families for the winter season ahead, keeping them in school and letting them return to normal activities with less risk.

Many pediatricians are urging parents not to wait. The highly contagious delta variant is circulating, and there’s no way to predict if a child will get very sick from it. Vaccination is the best way to protect children from getting severe COVID-19 illness.

If parents have questions about whether their child should get vaccinated, they should ask their child’s doctor. Vaccination may not be recommended for a child with a known history of a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to any component of the vaccine.

Edward-Elmhurst Health has COVID-19 vaccine appointments available for anyone age 5 and older and is currently scheduling appointments at the Edward-Elmhurst Health Center at 2205 Butterfield Rd. in Downers Grove.

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