COVID-19 Vaccination for Children 5 to 11: Your Questions Answered
Marc Mazade, M.D. gets a lot questions of the COVID-19 vaccine, especially now that it's available for children ages 5 to 11. As medical director of Infection Control and Prevention at Cook Children’s Medical Center, he wanted to provide answers to some of the questions he hears most often from parents. Here they are:
WILL THEY BE SAFE?
I often hear concerns about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines for children. Some parents are apprehensive because they are different from traditional vaccines that kids have received for decades for things like measles, mumps and chickenpox. But, new advancements make vaccines even safer than they were before. Parents are also concerned that we don’t know enough about COVID-19 vaccines because they were rushed into development. Not really! Yes, the COVID-19 vaccine is the first mRNA vaccine, but the concept for mRNA-based vaccines has been around for more than 30 years. In 2012, experts in vaccine development agreed that mRNA-based vaccines present several safety features. For one, mRNA does not hang around within the body once it has done its job teaching cells how to fight the virus, and it does not change the body’s DNA. These vaccines are also easy to produce in large amounts and very high purity. It just took a while for us to figure out how to put them together and keep the mRNA from breaking down before it gets from the vaccine manufacturing plant into the patient. As anticipated, data from the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines has shown them to be safe and effective. Still, after millions of doses given world-wide, the CDC and FDA continue to work exceedingly hard to investigate vaccine-associated adverse events. In fact, I am once again responding to my daily CDC post-vaccine booster heath check-up text, and I will be sure to let them know, as often as they want to ask me, just how I am doing.
WILL THEY CHANGE MY CHILD’S DNA?
When my wife and I go to a restaurant, we review the menu and the waiter writes down our orders and takes the ticket to the kitchen. In the kitchen, the chef reviews the ticket and starts making our food. Then, the waiter brings our food to the table. Think of the chef in that kitchen as the ribosomes inside our cells. He reads the ticket and makes the food just like our ribosomes read the mRNA instructions given through the vaccine and make protein strands that eventually find their way to the surface of our cells. These are the COVID-19 spike proteins. These spike proteins are identified by our immune cells, which then triggers our body to form antibodies to protect us from severe illness due to the virus. The nucleus of the cell where our own DNA is housed is not involved in this process. Just like old food tickets are eventually discarded, the mRNA eventually breaks down and is discarded by the body. No change in a person’s genetic make-up occurs.
WHAT ABOUT FERTILITY?
Concerns that vaccination against COVID-19 might somehow be associated with women becoming infertile or being unable to carry a pregnancy circulated on social media, but there is no scientific basis for these concerns. Thankfully, many pregnant women and non-pregnant women of child-bearing age are heeding the advice of their obstetrician-gynecologists to get vaccinated without delay.
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER INGREDIENTS IN THE VACCINES?
When my eldest daughter was in elementary school, she would come to me occasionally requesting medication for one reason or another. In fun, I would ask her the same things I ask my patients, “Have you ever had a reaction to any of the many ingredients listed on the medication package insert?” After I playfully cross-examined her regarding a few ingredients, she would say, “I don’t have any problem with those things, Dad, I just have a headache.” She wasn’t concerned about the chemicals that made the medication stable or buffered the drug, or the dyes that determined the color of the pill, gelatin capsule or syrup. She just knew the medication would make her feel better in a short time so that she could go back to playing. She trusted that her dad already knew what she needed and how to help her. She knew that he would never intentionally give her something bad. In regards to vaccines, the tiny amounts of these chemicals in vaccines are of no clinical consequence and should be of no concern, with a few extremely rare allergy situations.
WHAT ABOUT SIDE EFFECTS?
Because the entire virus is needed to cause disease, these vaccines can’t give you COVID-19.
Most side effects are due to our immune systems waking up in response to what it’s learning from the vaccine. My family members and I had a few. Like the side effects that many people have, they were mild—fever, achiness, headache, arm pain, etc.—and they didn’t last long. Unlike older adults, especially the elderly, most children have immune systems that need smaller doses to get the immune system revved up and working. The COVID-19 vaccine dosing for young children will likely be lower than the dosing in adolescents and adults. Smaller doses are expected to reduce vaccine side effects in kids.
WHY SHOULD I VACCINATE MY CHILD?
Vaccination is an important part of both personal and community health. So is access to clean drinking water, functional sewage systems, fluoridated toothpaste, healthy food, sunscreen and soap.
In summary, there is no new secret prescription to maintaining good health. Eat right, brush your teeth, wash your hands after going to the bathroom and before handling food, exercise, refill your blood pressure medication, keep all your health and wellness check-ups, do what your doctor says which is founded in good science, and get vaccinated.
IS COVID-19 A THREAT TO MY CHILDREN AND FAMILY?
The virus that causes COVID-19 has evolved and the transmission has escalated. With the first couple of waves we were dealing with a virus that did not transmit between children very well. Now we are dealing with variants that spread five times as easily. Shortly after schools reopened we had sick kids all over the place. Some of the major pediatric hospitals were unable to accept transfers of children who required the kind of advanced care that is only available in a few places. Transmission between children, and from children to adults at home, skyrocketed. Teachers got sick, too. Our ability to care for the sickest kids was pushed to the limit in terms of hospital beds, availability of advanced equipment, and trained staff to provide the care that was needed. While deaths in children due to COVID-19 is uncommon, severe illness is not, especially among children who are overweight, and there are many children who are in that category. Even when children have mild symptoms, they are at risk to develop an inflammatory syndrome after natural infection that can lead to vomiting, abdominal pain, rash, respiratory failure, and shock. We deal with that on a daily basis now. So in short, the answer is yes, it really is.
Get to know Marc Mazade, M.D.
I went into infectious diseases because my infectious diseases professors were among the most passionate doctors and teachers who invested in medical students and residents.
When I got into infectious diseases fellowship and received that one-on-one training on a daily basis, my career started blossoming. Everything started coming together. My professors challenged me to keep reading, thinking, and researching, while instilling in me the quiet patience that's required to keep digging via a friendly conversation with kids and their families to uncover a potential diagnosis that might explain an illness.
Kids are fun to treat, because they aren't weighed down by a life of poor health decisions that compromise their chances of getting better. It makes me feel great to see kids get well and back to living the lives they love - playing with toys, going to school, drawing and painting, or participating in dance, sports, band, choir, youth group, or just spending enriching time with their families and friends.
I like mentoring upper level medical students and helping them develop their knowledge of infections that are common in children. They often remember things that I've forgotten. When I'm not at Cook Children's, I love working on my tennis serve and backhand, fishing the abundant lakes, streams and bays of the region, and turning the pages of a well written medical mystery novel.