Parents will have an important decision to make soon: to vaccinate their children against the novel coronavirus or not.
Pfizer-BioNTech has announced that studies show its COVID-19 vaccine produced a “robust” antibody response in children age 5 to 11. The drugmaker is poised to submit a request for regulatory approval of Comirnaty in the pediatric group. Its chief rival, Moderna, is also expected to do so soon for its Spikevax vaccine.
So far, COVID-19 vaccines are approved only for those age 12 and up, and to date, more than 80 per cent of eligible Canadians have rolled up their sleeves for both shots.
Theoretically, vaccination of elementary-school children could begin around Halloween.
Signing the consent form should not be a difficult choice for parents – but it’s not a decision that should be taken lightly, either.
Everyone wants the best for their children. With a lot of false information and scaremongering floating about, especially on social media, the trepidation of parents is understandable. Even the most ardent supporters of vaccination will admit there are a lot of unknowns.
But unknown is not a synonym for unsafe.
The key here is figuring out whether the potential benefits of COVID-19 vaccination outweigh the potential risks.
They certainly do for adults, and every indication is that they will do the same for children.
A common refrain we have heard since the beginning of the pandemic is that the coronavirus poses less of a risk for children than adults. That is true – but there are caveats.
Less of a risk doesn’t mean no risk. When a large number of children get infected – as is happening now with the Delta variant – the small percentage who fall gravely ill will still be significant.
In the U.S., we are seeing pediatric hospitals overflowing, and sometimes overwhelmed, by COVID-19 patients who are children. Alberta Children’s Hospital has had to suspend most of its elective surgeries to accommodate the surge in young COVID-19 patients.
Some of these young patients develop MIS-C (multisystem inflammatory syndrome), a condition in which body parts – including vital organs such as the heart, lungs and kidneys – can become dangerously inflamed.
Children infected with coronavirus, even if they have only mild illness, can also develop lingering symptoms. The estimates of how many children develop long COVID vary wildly, but it’s a significant minority.
But what about the vaccine – does it pose health risks?
There is a truism in medicine that every drug that has benefits also has side effects.
The most common side effects of COVID-19 vaccination are minor and short-lasting: fever, fatigue, headache. Pfizer said its research showed these were less common in children than adults. (This is not surprising since the dose given to children, 10 micrograms, is one-third of the adult dose.)
There are concerns too about mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) causing heart problems such as myocarditis and pericarditis.
Here, again, relativity is important to consider. Young people are far more likely to suffer these heart conditions as a result of COVID-19 infection than after vaccination.
There are many canards you will hear about the dangers of vaccination, many of them promoted by charlatans hawking so-called alternative treatments – everything from wild allegations that vaccines contain microchips (for the record, they don’t) to complaints the shots are being rushed and inadequately tested.
There is some truth to the speed argument – this is a pandemic of unprecedented scope and scale, so, yes, we should be in a hurry, and fast-tracking approval is justified.
But there have been 6.1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the world so far. There is no other drug in history that has had as much real-world proof of concept and safety.
Be skeptical of the nonsense anti-vaxxers are spewing.
Currently, the best way to protect children from COVID-19 is to ensure all the adults around them have been vaccinated. Obviously we’re not doing that well enough, because one in five new infections are in children.
Come Halloween, children should be able to get more direct protection. Until then, we should be planning the rollout – a mass vaccination campaign in schools around the country this fall.
We should also be clear that vaccination should be mandatory for school attendance, as it is already in some provinces for nine childhood diseases, all of which are far less of a threat than COVID-19.
Ultimately, getting shots in arms – both young and old – remains our best hope for ending the pandemic.
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