COVID-19 Vaccines for Kids 12 to 15: Your Biggest Fears Addressed by Experts

Many parents are hesitant, so we asked doctors to weigh in on the most common concerns.

When the COVID-19 vaccine became available for children 12 to 15—and then 5 years and up in November 2021—many parents were wondering whether it was safe or even necessary to get their kids vaccinated. Experts in pediatrics, infectious disease, and childhood immunization insist the science is clear: The benefits far and away outweigh any risks.

But what about allergies? What about long-term effects? Why not wait and see?

There are plenty of opinions in the blogosphere and social media about childhood vaccines in general and COVID-19 specifically. Unfortunately, the naysayers are often guided by faulty information or a misunderstanding of the science, experts said.

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What To Know About the Pfizer Vaccine for Kids

Days after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expanded emergency use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 12 to 15, an advisory panel to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended it for the prevention of COVID-19 in this age group. The panel voted 14-0 with one recusal. It's a vigorous endorsement based on an extensive review of the benefits and harms.

As of May 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone who is 5 years old and up gets vaccinated against COVID-19. For kids in the 12 to 15 age group, the vaccine consists of two doses delivered three weeks apart, just like it is for adults. It's the same dosage, too. Kids in the 12 to 15 age group are "immunologically similar to adults," Christina Johns, MD, a pediatrician and senior medical advisor at PM Pediatrics in Annapolis, Maryland, told Health. "So that's not a concern." (Sixteen- and 17-year-olds were previously included under Pfizer's emergency use authorization.) A booster dose is recommended at least five months after the final dose in the primary series.

Kids in the 5 to 11 age group also get two doses of the vaccine, three weeks apart. The dose is smaller in this age group, and a booster dose is not recommended.

Parents' Misgivings About Vaccinating Their Kids and Teens

Parents have been very much divided on whether their children should get COVID-19 shots. An ongoing Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) survey shows this division, with many parents wanting to wait for their kids to get the COVID-19 vaccination, and some stating that their child will never get it.

Separately, a 50-state survey from researchers at Northeastern, Harvard, Rutgers, and Northwestern Universities suggested moms were more hesitant about getting their kids vaccinated than dads. According to survey results published online, 27% percent of mothers indicated that they were extremely unlikely to vaccinate their kids, versus 11% of fathers. Attitudes also varied across income, education, and political affiliation.

So why are some parents not fully onboard or completely against the COVID-19 vaccine for their kids?

"Honestly, I'm hearing it all," said Dr. Johns. Some parents are comfortable with the science and they're curating information from trusted channels, said Dr. Johns, while others just aren't sure; they have some concerns; they're nervous. "And then there are a bunch of people who have really bought into some of the stuff that they've heard online," said Dr. Johns.

We asked researchers and clinicians to set the record straight on common misperceptions that may have been giving parents pause. Here's what they told us.

"The Vaccine Is Not Necessary for Kids Because They Don't Get COVID-19"

While kids as a group are less severely affected than adults, Dr. Johns said there are children who do get serious cases. And a growing number are developing "long COVID," which can cause headache, fatigue, problems focusing, or other lingering issues, added Dr Johns. Data presented to the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) showed that adolescents as a group, ages 12 to 17, were much more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than with influenza. The analysis was based on data from flu outbreaks over the past decade.

Vaccinating children can protect them from serious COVID-19 infections and complications, including MIS-C, a rare but dangerous illness in children (and adults) exposed to COVID-19. Dr. Johns said she had to admit children to a pediatric intensive care unit who were critically ill, "who may wind up having long-term damage to their hearts from this post-infectious inflammatory condition."

Getting vaccinated would also be a step toward giving kids some normalcy, Julie Boom, MD, professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the immunization project at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston, told Health. "Parents really need to realize that getting your teen vaccinated is going to help not only your teen return to normal daily activities but help our communities and nation return to life as we knew it pre-COVID," said Dr. Boom.

"The Vaccines Were Rushed, and They Might Not Be Safe"

Sure, it might seem like they were rushed. But there's no evidence that manufacturers cut safety corners in devising or testing the new vaccines. Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine, like the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, made its way through clinical trials and FDA scrutiny just as any other vaccine would.

What did happen was Operation Warp Speed, a concerted effort launched by the federal government in 2020 to reduce red tape, not scientific rigor. The process was accelerated, not rushed, Litjen (L.J.) Tan, PhD, chief strategy officer at the Immunization Action Coalition, a Saint Paul, Minnesota-based nonprofit that educates health care providers and the public on child, teen, and adult immunization, told Health.

Tan, an expert in microbiology and immunology, added that the vaccines didn't come out of thin air. They're the product of two decades of preclinical studies and researchers' past experiences developing vaccines for two prior coronaviruses: SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome).

"The Long-Term Effects Aren't Known Yet"

What we know about the vaccine's side effects comes from clinical trials that began in July 2020 as well as ongoing monitoring. Pfizer enrolled more than 46,000 volunteers in its phase 3 trial, including 2,260 young people ages 12 to 15.

Among teens, adverse reactions were generally what you'd expect: pain at the injection site, fatigue, and headache. Chills, muscle pain, fever, joint pain, and swelling or redness at the injection site were less common.

For an unknown side effect to emerge at this point "would be extremely unusual," said Dr. Boom. Tan added that most vaccine side effects appear within the first 60 days of receiving a vaccine.

And while the CDC is actively monitoring reports of heart inflammation (called myocarditis—inflammation of the heart muscle—and pericarditis—inflammation of the outer lining of the heart) in adolescents and young adults after a second mRNA vaccine, they say it's no reason not to get the vaccine.

"It Could Affect Kids' Fertility"

Worries that a COVID-19 vaccine might make kids infertile is a myth running rampant on social media. Scientists say there's no basis for making such a claim. It cannot affect current or future fertility, either in females or males.

The Pfizer vaccine is a so-called mRNA vaccine. It merely teaches our cells to make spike protein, the same protein found on the surface of SARS-CoV-2. Our immune systems respond by making protective antibodies. Ultimately, if you are exposed to the virus at some future time, your immune system will know how to fight it off.

But there's no mechanism to transport mRNA into the nucleus of a cell, where genes are made. "That's not biologically possible," Tan pointed out, so it simply cannot affect eggs or sperm or cells of the reproductive organs.

"It Could Put My Child at Risk of a Serious Allergic Reaction"

"Actually, the anaphylaxis rates are incredibly low with the tens of millions of people who have been vaccinated," observed Dr. Johns. No cases of anaphylaxis—aka, a severe allergic reaction—were reported among 12- to 15-year-olds in the Pfizer clinical trials.

Reasons not to get vaccinated include a known history of a severe or immediate allergic reaction to any component of the vaccine or to a prior dose of the vaccine. The CDC advises health care providers to have personnel, supplies, and epinephrine ready to manage any such reactions.

It's why your child should be observed for 15 minutes (or 30 minutes if there's any history of allergy) after getting the vaccine, the same way adults are observed after getting their shots.

"It's Better To Wait for Full FDA Approval"

Initially, all of the vaccines authorized for use against COVID-19 in the US had an emergency use authorization (EUA). But even before they're officially FDA-approved, it doesn't mean they haven't been rigorously tested.

The EUA process simply made it possible for the FDA to clear the vaccines for use during the COVID-19 crisis based on the best available evidence, weighing both the potential benefits and risks.

"You're splitting hairs when you use the words approval versus authorization," argued Tan, noting that the vaccines had undergone the same rigid research and development submission of clinical trials data that are necessary for licensure.

In a May 2021 statement, American Academy of Pediatrics President Lee Savio Beers, MD, emphasized the upside: "Vaccinating children will protect them and allow them to fully engage in all of the activities—school, sports, socializing with friends and family—that are so important to their health and development."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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