COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19: U.S. parents split over vaccines for young kids

Published : November 11, 2021 17:27 IST

The BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine for 5-11 year-olds now has emergency approval in the U.S. Photo: Tom Brenner/REUTERS

In the U.S., 5-to-11-year-olds can now get COVID shots. Some parents can't wait for their kids' turn, others hesitate.

Louise*, mother of a first-grader in Washington D.C., was so keen on getting her daughter vaccinated against COVID-19 that she didn't mind going a bit out of her way. On November 5 around lunchtime she found out that a rec center across town had around 300 open spots for kids aged 5 to 11 the following day. She immediately signed up ― and just in time, too. "We were really lucky!" she said. "We got spot 256." On November 6 they drove the 20 minutes to the rec center. Louise's six-year-old was a bit nervous, the mother said, but fine as soon as the whole thing was over: "She cried more before than after."

It was a celebratory occasion. There were t-shirts with an "I got vaccinated" slogan for each child who wanted one, and a round of applause for every boy and girl who emerged with the telltale band-aid on their arm. Louise is just glad her daughter is finally on her way to being more protected, especially since she has been back in a physical classroom since the start of the school year. "It is such a huge relief to get this under the belt," she said. "I know two kids at her school who recently got [COVID]. Thankfully they recovered, but why take that chance if you can avoid it?"

28 million children can now get vaccinated

In the U.S., parents of young children can now minimize the risk of their kids catching the coronavirus. On November 2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended BioNTech-Pfizer's pediatric vaccine for use in children aged 5 to 11. The recommendation followed the vaccine's emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration on October 29. "We know millions of parents are eager to get their children vaccinated, and with this decision, we now have recommended that about 28 million children receive a COVID-19 vaccine," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement at the time.

BioNTech-Pfizer tested the vaccine in a clinical trial, with around 2,200 children receiving two doses of 10 micrograms each (a third of the dose for people aged 12 and older), spaced 21 days apart. Results showed that the vaccine is nearly 91 per cent effective in preventing children from contracting COVID. Back in September, when the German and U.S. companies released the data from the trial and applied for authorization, they stated that "the vaccine was safe, well tolerated and showed robust neutralizing antibody responses" in the 5-to-11-year-old age group.

U.S. President Joe Biden encouraged parents to have their children vaccinated. "Children make up one quarter of the cases in this country. And while rare, children can get very sick from COVID-19," Biden said in a press briefing the day after the CDC authorized the pediatric vaccine. "This vaccine is safe and effective. So, get your children vaccinated to protect themselves, to protect others, and to stop the spread, and to help us beat this pandemic."

Risks from COVID greater than from vaccine

According to preliminary data from the CDC, more than 366,000 children under 12 in the U.S. had got at least one shot as of November 8. The CDC recommends the vaccine for young children because it says while severe cases of COVID-19 are rare in children of that age group, the health risks for children who contract COVID are far greater than potential vaccine side effects. The most common symptoms, like achiness, a sore arm or fever, usually pass within a day or two after the vaccination.

One rare side effect that has been reported with mRNA vaccines like the BioNTech-Pfizer one is myocarditis, or heart muscle inflammation. The CDC has reported more than 1,000 cases after mRNA shots ― that amounts to roughly 13 in a million. Many of those affected were male adolescents and young adults. The CDC stated that "most patients who received care responded well to treatment and rest and quickly felt better." People are many times more likely to suffer a serious heart infection after a COVID illness than after a COVID vaccination.

Despite recommendations and reassurances from medical experts, there is still a significant number of parents who don't want their children vaccinated against COVID. In a poll by the non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation, which focuses on national health issues, 30 per cent of parents said they would not get the COVID vaccine for their children between the ages of 5 and 11. The poll was conducted in October, shortly before the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine was authorized for that age group.

Skepticism on one side, full trust on the other

Jaime*, a mother of three in Wisconsin, is among those who do not want their children vaccinated. She and her husband haven't got the shots either. "We are opting not to," she said. "We take good care of our immune systems." She explained that she felt more comfortable with the chances of contracting and surviving COVID than with the vaccine. About her children, who are 3, 5 and 12, she said that she didn't want to "put something unknown in their bodies."

Nick*, a father in Massachusetts, said he signed up his two sons, aged 6 and almost 8, as soon as appointments became available. Like Louise, he had no problem driving 20 minutes out of his way to make sure the boys could receive their shots on November 7. "I was very motivated," he said with a laugh before getting serious. "I want them to be around the older folks in my family again without having to worry."

Nick said he had read a lot of news stories about the vaccine for children to keep up to date. When the CDC authorized the shot, he felt confident about his sons' vaccinations. "By this time they've done the trials, and children 12 and over have been getting it for a while and are fine," the father said. "My sons always get their flu shots and have never had a bad reaction to that or any of the regular vaccines."

Both boys, Nick reported, were excited to receive the vaccine. "They get it. They understand way more about viruses and transmission and keeping the community safe than I did when I was six," he said. "They understand this is what it takes for them to stop wearing masks at school and travel again."

*All parents in this story preferred to be quoted by their first name only and not have their children's names mentioned.

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