By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved the use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children, many parents signed their children up for an appointment. Among those parents were Vice admiral and U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and his wife.
This is a landmark moment, Murthy said, it is an opportunity to protect our most vulnerable.
Murthy shared these remarks during a panel discussion on Thursday, Nov. 18. The panel was hosted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of its “We Can do This” COVID-19 public education campaign.
“This vaccine is highly effective,” Murthy said. “It has a strong safety profile, and it will help protect our children and our communities from COVID-19.”
The dose for children is about a third lower than the dose for adults, he said, adding that it went through a careful and rigorous review process. The data was reviewed by independent and government scientists, he said.
“The clinical trials produced very promising results,” Murthy said. “The vaccines were found to be more than 90% effective at preventing our kids from developing symptomatic COVID illness. So that’s a very strong result.”
He noted that side effects seen during the trials included fatigue, swelling of the arm and fevers, but that that they disappeared after a few days and no adverse side effects were noted.
So many aspects of children’s lives have been disrupted, Murthy said, and many are struggling with depression and anxiety. Getting vaccinated will help children get back to normal, he said. If a child isn’t yet eligible for the vaccine, then the rest of the household can do their part and get vaccinated, he said.
“As parents there’s nothing more important to us than making sure our kids are going to be OK,” he said. “That’s why I want parents to know that’s it’s OK for you to ask questions about the vaccine and the vaccination process. It’s important that you get your questions answered. It’s also important that you get your information from credible scientific sources.”
Dr. Lee Savio Beers, the president of American Academy of Pediatrics, also partook in the panel discussion. She noted that while many children recover from COVID-19, some get very sick and are hospitalized. About 6.6 million children have been infected with the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, Beers said, adding that that number continues to grow.
“Vaccinating children will protect their health and allow them to get back to all the activities that are so important to their health and development,” Beers said. “As a pediatrician, vaccines have been part of my professional career for decades: nothing has proven more successful in preventing disease and infection.”
Children make up a significant level of the population, and vaccinating children will help slow the spread of the virus, she said. Pediatricians across the country are working to make sure that access to the vaccine is equitable, Beers said.
Dr. Kenneth Alexander, chief of Infectious Diseases at Nemours Children’s Health in Orlando, Florida, noted that at the beginning of the pandemic, the virus was considered an adult disease until the Delta variant came on the scene.
COVID-19 takes two forms in children: acute viral pneumonia and multisystem inflammatory syndrome also known as MIS-C.
Children who have acute viral pneumonia are often not getting enough oxygen, Alexander explained. These children come in struggling to breath and at best spend several days in hospital hooked to a ventilator. These children also run the risk of getting blood clots in their lungs.
The multisystem inflammatory syndrome often occurs days to weeks after a COVID-19 infection, and symptoms include high fevers, difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, chest pain and more, Alexander said. This one affects every system in the body, but the main concerns are the heart, lungs and bone marrow.
According to Alexander, no children at Nemours Children’s Health have died from the multisystem inflammatory syndrome, but the long-term side effects remain unknown. He added that children have died from acute viral pneumonia.
If people got vaccinated, these deaths could have been prevented, Alexander said.
“These vaccines work,” Alexander said. “These vaccines work really well. They keep kids out of the hospital.”
Dr. Jody Thomas is the founder and CEO of the Meg Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps children and adults prevent pain and medical anxiety through science and empowerment. Many people associate going to the doctor with bad past experiences, she said. For example, vaccine hesitancy has been linked to needle anxiety, Thomas said.
“Needle fear is incredibly common,” she said. “In the U.S. 25% of adults, 50% of teens and 63% of kids have enough fear of needles that it can change their health care decisions.”
Through her organization, Thomas helps families associate good memories with medical visits by providing them with resources and tactics to avoid the freak out often associated with needles.
One tactic includes creating a plan with the children including which arm they want, where they want to sit and more. Other suggestions include numbing cream and utilizing distractions such as videos or toys and breathing and rewards. For more resources and suggestions go to https://www.megfoundationforpain.org/.
“This vaccine experience will either be a chance to reinforce that needle fear or a chance for kids to have an empowering experience,” Thomas said. “And we all want it to be a moment that they can access their inner superhero.”