COVID vaccine and kids: What does the future hold for parents concerned about their children's health?

Posted at 10:47 PM, Apr 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-07 22:47:04-04

(WXYZ) — Dr. Eric McGrath didn’t need to think hard about getting the vaccine.

"For me it was a no-brainer to get the vaccine as soon as it was available and the same for my wife who’s a nurse," said the Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Wayne State University School of Medicine.

"But with kids," he continued. "I think there’s a lot of caution, concern."

Since early April all Michiganders 16 and older have been able to sign up for a vaccination slot for a dose of Pfizer (Johson & Johnson and Moderna are still limited to those 18+). But as the sprint to end the pandemic continues, the question of children and immunity has come to the forefront. It is seen as a critical, but also contentious, necessity in the return to "normal."

"I think I would like to give it to my children," McGrath continued, "it’s just a matter of sort of getting information when it finally gets released, and then you know sorting through it."

That information is starting to trickle out. Last week Pfizer announced promising news: A trial with kids 12 to 15 years old was shown to be 100% effective in preventing infection. They subsequently began a trial with children under five this month. Moderna began its trial with kids under 12 just last month.

"I think a lot of people have worries about the safety of the vaccine for their children," said Dr. Aimee Gordon, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health Department of Epidemiology, stressing that ultimately any vaccine for kids would have to go through a rigorous vetting process, which should calm some nerves.

"The vaccine will not be approved if there are significant safety concerns for kids," she continued.

According to Gordon the main question for children and the vaccine is figuring out the correct dosage.

"Some people say 'OK this is already tried in adults, why can’t we just move it into kids?' Children are more than little adults," she said. "Their immune systems are different."

Both the MRNA vaccines — Pfizer and Moderna — are known to be very immunogenic, meaning they illicit an immune response. This can be good, but also a balancing act when it comes to children who may be more responsive.

"We want a nice immune response," said Gordon. "But they also come with other things like fevers, aches, and pains, sore arms and so the concern is what is that going to look like in children?"

There are also fears that kids could potentially develop completely unique reactions to the vaccine, as they did to COVID-19.

"My fear from the very beginning is just we need to make sure that vaccines don’t pose a risk for inducing that type of inflammation response," said McGrath, who saw tons of cases this past year in which children were hospitalized with multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) caused by COVID-19.

"We were some of the first people in the country with New York and a few other states to be seeing the multi-inflammatory syndrome associated with COVID-19," said McGrath.

The CDC began tracking MIS-C cases in mid-May 2020 and reports over 3,100 cases and 36 deaths. The median age is 9 years old.

"There has been some concern," said Gordon, noting that many experts think it is very unlikely that the vaccine would cause MIS-C.

"But absolutely that has to be checked," she continued, noting that in fact it is issues like MIS-C that make the vaccine all the more important in children.

"For a lot of people I hear: 'Yeah but kids aren’t at risk for COVID-19, you know?' and 'Why do we need to get our kids vaccinated once all the adults are vaccinated? Isn’t it just fine?' It’s a misconception," said Gordon. "It’s not that kids aren’t at risk. They’re at much lower risk than adults but in the US there have been over 1300 hospitalizations for COVID-19 in children and hundreds of deaths. And if you compare that to flu, you usually don’t get hundreds of tested positive flu deaths in a year."

While McGrath acknowledges it makes sense parents — like himself — want to be thoughtful when making a choice like a vaccine shot for their kids, he stresses that people should do their homework but also be leery of conspiracy theories making their way across the internet right now.

"There’s always going to be that kind of side noise and we really need to get to the information and make educated and informed decisions," he said, adding that the timing of all this is difficult.

"There was a long anti-vaccine movement going on in the country now, going on now for probably almost 20 years," he said. "So this really comes at a time, unfortunately, where that really hasn’t gone away, if anything it may have been emboldened by the pandemic."

But ultimately Gordon points out "normal" will only return when herd immunity is it. And with youth making up a quarter of the population, this is going to have to happen somehow.

"SARSCOV-2 is not going away," she said. "You’re going to get immunity one way or another — either through vaccination or infection — and really to end this pandemic in a timely fashion, for us to be able to move back into what we consider 'normal life' we need to get immunity in children and so that means we really need a vaccine for children."