Health Canada announced Friday that it has approved the first COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5-11, setting in motion a new national vaccination campaign that will help protect kids from the virus and could reduce overall transmission rates in Canada.
For many, the news comes as a long-awaited relief. For nearly two years, the pandemic has upended children’s lives with school closings, cancelled social gatherings and countless other disruptions. Here’s what parents need to know about the vaccine and how it will be rolled out.
The vaccine, produced by Pfizer/BioNTech, is the same mRNA formulation as the one given to those 12 and older, but the dosage has been reduced to 10 micrograms, one-third the amount in the original version. Children tend to have robust immune responses, so reducing the dosage ensures kids will have high levels of protection while minimizing the risk of side effects.
Nearly three million doses of the vaccine, or one for every child aged 5 to 11 in Canada, will begin to be delivered on Sunday. Manitoba Health Minister Audrey Gordon said this week that the province expects to have vaccines available for children as soon as a week after Health Canada gives the go-ahead.
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization issued recommendations to provinces on administering the shots, including guidance on how much time to leave between the first and second doses. In its application to Health Canada, Pfizer/BioNTech requested a three-week interval. But NACI recommended an eight-week interval, the same time period it recommends for the adult version of the vaccine. Studies have shown that extending the interval to eight weeks helps ensure a strong and lasting immune response.
It’s unclear if children will need boosters, but it’s likely they will be recommended at some point. Studies show that immunity tends to wane after the second dose.
What do we know about the efficacy of the vaccine?
Pfizer/BioNTech’s study of its COVID-19 vaccine’s effects on kids aged 5 to 11 was published in the New England Journal of Medicine earlier this month.
Researchers gave the 10 microgram version of the vaccine to 1,517 children, while 751 children received a placebo. The children received second doses three weeks after the first.
At the end of the study, three children who received the vaccine became infected with COVID-19 seven days or more after their second doses, compared with 16 kids in the placebo group. That means the vaccine efficacy rate is about 91 per cent, similar to the strong protection seen in older age groups.
What are the side effects?
Injection site pain was the most common side effect reported in children during the study, followed by fatigue and headache. Side effects were generally mild, and they usually lasted one to two days, according to the study’s authors.
There were three serious adverse events reported in two children who participated in the study, but the authors say none of the harm was actually caused by the vaccine. One child who received a placebo suffered abdominal pain and pancreatitis after an unrelated injury, and a child who received the vaccine suffered an unrelated arm fracture.
What about the risk of heart inflammation?
COVID-19 mRNA vaccines have been tied to rare cases of heart inflammation – myocarditis and pericarditis. The group that appears to be most at risk is young men who have just received second doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine.
The trial of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in kids aged 5 to 11 didn’t find any cases of heart inflammation. But it’s possible that some young people will experience it after receiving COVID-19 vaccines, which is why officials will be monitoring the situation closely.
The majority of cases of heart inflammation tied to vaccines are mild and resolve with medication.
Experts have highlighted the fact that the health risks associated with actually becoming sick with COVID-19 are much greater than any risks associated with vaccines. The virus itself can cause heart inflammation.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, as of Nov. 5 nearly 59 million COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered in the country. There had been 5,899 reports of serious adverse reactions. Those serious side effects included anaphylaxis and heart inflammation.
How and where can my child get vaccinated?
The federal government is in charge of approving vaccines and procuring them. Provinces and local health authorities are responsible for determining where the vaccines will be given and the logistics of how to run clinics.
Health experts say the mass immunization clinics seen earlier in the pandemic likely aren’t the best fit for kids, who may be more sensitive to the sights and sounds of others being vaccinated around them.
Manitoba parents have already started booking appointments for their children. Shipments of the pediatric vaccine will go out later this week for about 15,000 eligible children who live on-reserve in the province’s First Nations.
Starting Tuesday in Ontario, children aged five to 11 will be eligible to book COVID-19 vaccine appointments. Shots could be going into arms starting as early as Thursday when vaccines begin to arrive at clinics across Ontario.
Vaccine appointment bookings will be made through the provincial COVID-19 vaccination portal and contact centre, directly through public health units using their own booking systems, participating pharmacies and select primary care providers. Toronto Public Health has said it will use a combination of mobile school clinics, pharmacies and other health clinics to help vaccinate kids.
Saskatchewan is to receive its first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine for children Tuesday and is to begin vaccinations Wednesday.
Is it safe to combine the COVID-19 vaccine with other immunizations?
NACI recommends that children wait at least 14 days before or after receiving another vaccine (such as the flu shot) before getting a COVID-19 vaccine. This will help to determine whether side-effects that may arise are due to one immunization or the other.
Will vaccines be mandatory for school attendance?
No province has said it will require children to be vaccinated in order to attend school. However, many universities and workplaces have introduced vaccine mandates in order to control virus spread. Some health experts believe that school vaccine requirements are inevitable.
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