The US Food and Drug Administration has extended the authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to 12- to 15-year-olds, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to recommend the expanded eligibility as early as Wednesday.
Parents will be deciding whether to get their children vaccinated against this deadly pandemic. What are questions they should be asking, and how should they go about making this decision?
We turned to CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen to get her advice and to answer some commonly asked questions that parents have about the vaccine. Wen is an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She’s also the author of the forthcoming book “Lifelines: A Doctor’s Journey in the Fight for Public Health.”
CNN: For parents who have children ages 12 and older, how do you think they should approach the decision about whether their children should be vaccinated?
Dr. Leana Wen: The first thing I’d suggest is to talk to your child. More than likely, he or she has a strong opinion. Many adolescents are really eager to resume pre-pandemic life and resume sleepovers and indoor birthday parties. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those fully vaccinated can see others who are also fully vaccinated without masks or distancing, and a lot of 12-year-olds and teens are super excited to get together with their friends.
CNN: What other things can adolescents look forward to once they’re fully vaccinated?
Wen: When more adolescents get vaccinated, we might see rules change at camp, youth sports and school. It’s possible that mask requirements may be dropped if everyone in a camp or on a sports team is vaccinated, for example.
Vaccination also makes everything safer for you as a family. A lot of families are trying to navigate how to be partially vaccinated, if parents are protected through vaccination but children are not. Having kids also protected means that you are safer as a whole, and can choose to engage in more activities together – including traveling and seeing other vaccinated families indoors, without masks or distancing.
CNN: Does the vaccine protect teens just as well as it protects adults?
Wen: Based on the data so far, yes. In a study of more than 2,200 12- to 15-year-olds, 18 became ill from Covid-19. All were in the placebo group and none in the group that received the vaccine, which means that it appears there is a 100% efficacy in preventing coronavirus in the study.
Based on what we’ve seen from adults, there will be some of what we call “breakthrough infections,” meaning people who are fully vaccinated but still get Covid-19. But this will be a very small number. Vaccination will be very good at protecting the teen from getting ill and from becoming severely ill. And, very importantly, it will also reduce the likelihood of spreading coronavirus to others.
CNN: What about side effects? Is there a risk of blood clots?
Wen: The same side effects seen in adults are also seen in teens, meaning sore arm, fatigue, fever and muscles aches that could occur in the first 24 to 48 hours. These are not lasting side effects, and they are evidence that the vaccine is working to produce immunity.
The very rare blood clotting disorder was associated with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which uses an adenovirus vector technology. It has not been seen with the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, which use a different type of technology called messenger RNA technology. More than 120 million people have received the messenger RNA vaccines in the United States, without an association with the blood clotting disorder.
CNN: I’ve heard some parents say they don’t want to get the vaccine for their teens, because teens tend not to get as sick as adults. Why is it important for children to be vaccinated?
Wen: It’s true that children in general don’t suffer as severe outcomes of coronavirus as adults. However, children do contract Covid-19, and, tragically, some become very ill and hundreds have died in the US. Adolescents also spread coronavirus. In some states, youth sports have been major drivers of infection. Vaccination is therefore important both to protect your child and also to reduce the Covid-19 spread. Ultimately, it is vaccinating younger and older populations alike that will bring us to the point of slowing down transmission.
CNN: Some parents are concerned about long-term effects of the vaccine, saying that the vaccine is new and so we can’t know about lasting consequences. Can you address this, and also the concern about fertility?
Wen: I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that these vaccines are relatively new, and so we can’t say for certain that they don’t have long-term effects. However, we can say based on past experience with many other vaccines, that adverse effects are almost exclusively seen in the first 6 weeks after vaccination.
There is no physiological or scientific reason to believe that the vaccines will somehow cause long-term consequences many years after. It’s not possible to fully disprove something that hasn’t happened. This is comparing the hypothetical risk of something that is unlikely with the real risk of something – that of severe illness from Covid-19.
As far as fertility, this is an unfortunate rumor that has been circulated by anti-vaccine activists. This has no basis in science. Women have become pregnant during the vaccine trials and after taking the vaccine. There is no increased risk of miscarriage among pregnant women who have received the Covid-19 vaccines. And there’s no reason to believe that there is somehow long-term reproductive effect of the vaccines.
CNN: What about younger children – can those under 12 also be vaccinated?
Wen: Not at the moment. Trials are ongoing for younger children, including trials involving babies as young as 6 months. These trials will take months to complete, as they also involve trying out different doses and, of course, ensuring safety and efficacy. I’m eager for these trials to be done, as I have a 1-year-old and almost 4-year-old, and I’d love to get them vaccinated one day, too.
CNN: Where can parents go to get the Covid-19 vaccine for their teens?
Wen: The CDC advisory committee is meeting this Wednesday and expected to agree with the FDA authorization, which means that the vaccine could be given to adolescents 12 and older by later this week. Many sites that are already distributing the Pfizer vaccine to 16-year-olds and older will open eligibility to those 12 and over. You can call the pharmacy, doctor’s office or mass vaccination site near you to make sure they will be offering the vaccine for this age group.
CNN: What if parents aren’t convinced yet? Where else can they go for information?
Wen: All parents want what’s best for our children. It’s natural and certainly understandable that we want more information.
The CDC will have more information soon about the 12- to 15-year-old range, and I encourage you to seek out the answers from reputable sources like them. Parents also really trust our pediatricians, and I also urge that you have a conversation with them. Your pediatrician may also be able to offer the vaccine in their office, so that’s something else to inquire with them about.
Some parents are really eager – and their teens are too – to get the vaccine for their adolescents, but others want to wait and see a little bit. That’s also fine too! You need to have all your questions answered and concerns addressed.